Researchers trying to determine whether nature or nurture determines an ant's status in the colony have found a surprising answer.
Nature (that is, the ant's genetic makeup) and nurture (what it eats, for example) play a role in determining the fate of the Florida harvester ant, Pogonomyrmex badius, a resilient creature found in many parts of the southeastern United States.
The research team included scientists from the University of Illinois, the University of Arizona, Linfield College and Arizona State University. The findings appear this month in American Naturalist.
In the hierarchy of an ant colony, status is everything. If you are a "gyne" and thus destined to become a queen, you can expect the very best accommodations and generous portions at mealtimes. If you are a worker, you must be ready to sacrifice your health, welfare and reproductive capacity for the betterment of the colony.
The researchers were drawn to P. badius because its social structure is more complex than most. Its caste system includes two categories of workers: majors and minors. Major workers are nearly four times heavier than minors, but the minors outnumber them by 20 to 1. Gynes (pronounced jines) are about eight times heavier than minors.
The researchers wanted to know whether the ant's genetic endowment dictated its caste and size or whether nutrition also played a role.
"Basically what we found is that things are more complicated than previously thought," said Christopher R. Smith, a former graduate student in the School of Integrative Biology at Illinois and corresponding author on the study.
"Our study shows that there is a large genetic component to caste determination, but that there is also a very strong environmental component."
The researchers found that the genetic makeup of the colonies they studied was quite diverse. The average P. badius queen had mated with
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University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign