Colony founding, queen dominance and oligogyny in the Australian meat ant Iridomyrmex purpureus

Bert Hölldobler, Norman F. Carlin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

94 Scopus citations


Field observations and laboratory experiments demonstrate that in the Australian meat ant, Iridomyrmex purpureus, the modes of colony founding are remarkably diverse. New colonies can originate from single foundresses (haplometrosis), or foundress associations (pleometrosis), or by colony budding, or the adoption of newly-mated queens that dig founding chambers next to mature nests (probably their natal nests, as workers protect them and may help them dig). Readoption of foundresses and pleometrosis lead to the coexistence of several queens in one nest. We discovered a striking antagonistic behavior among coexisting queens in young colonies, in the form of ritualized antennation bouts. These interactions result in a reproductive rank order in which dominant queens inhibit egg-laying by subordinates, but escalation into physical fighting is rare. Workers ignore queen dominance interactions and treat all queens equally. The first quantitative ethogram of dominance display behavior between multiple ant queens, and its reproductive consequences, is presented. As a colony grows, queens become intolerant of each other's presence and permanently separate within the nest. Once separated, queens appear to be equal in status, laying approximately equal numbers of eggs. All queens continue to be tolerated by workers, even when the colony has reached a size of several thousand workers and begun to produce reproductives. Such mature nests of I. purpureus fulfill the criteria of oligogyny, defined by worker tolerance toward more than one queen and antagonism among queens, such that a limited number of fully functional queens are spaced far apart within a single colony. Oligogynous colonies can arise in this species by pleometrotic founding (primary oligogyny) or by adoption of queens into existing nests (secondary oligogyny). The adaptive significance of the complex system of colony founding, queen dominance and oligogyny in I. purpureus is discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)45-58
Number of pages14
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Nov 1985
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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