Distribution and origin of intraspecific social variation in the California harvester ant Pogonomyrmex californicus

R. Overson, Jennifer Fewell, Juergen Gadau

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


The California seed harvester ant Pogonomyrmex californicus exhibits striking differences in queen behavior and colony organization throughout its range. Most populations show the likely ancestral condition of single-queen colonies (monogyny). However, in one known population, cooperation between queens during colony founding (pleometrosis) occurs, and is suspected to persist to the mature colony stage (primary polygyny). To better understand this variation in social phenotype, we estimate relatedness among co-foundresses, measure the frequency of polygyny in adult colonies across three focal populations, and assess population genetic structure between populations. We additionally measure queen mating frequency (polyandry) across focal populations. With few possible exceptions, queens within pleometrotic associations are unrelated. We demonstrate a correlation between pleometrosis in incipient colonies and polygyny in adult colonies at the population level. Nuclear microsatellites and mtDNA barcoding indicate significant structure between focal populations. Queens from all three focal populations engage in relatively high levels of polyandry. These findings, when examined with previous data demonstrating that pleometrosis leads to polygynous colonies in the laboratory, strongly suggest that the same occurs in nature. However, the possibility of additional queen adoption in adult colonies (secondary polygyny) is not excluded. Thus, polygynous P. californicus colonies potentially represent long-term associations of unrelated family groups, containing multiple unrelated queens and their mixed-paternity offspring. Due to its pronounced variation in social behavior, P. californicus provides a unique opportunity to examine the evolutionary history and genetic underpinnings of cooperation among non-relatives, a strategy of intense interest in behavioral ecology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)531-541
Number of pages11
JournalInsectes Sociaux
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 1 2016


  • Biogeography
  • Cooperation
  • Pleometrosis
  • Pogonomyrmex
  • Population genetics
  • Primary polygyny

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Insect Science


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