Division of labor and the evolution of task sharing in queen associations of the harvester ant Pogonomyrmex californicus

Sara Helms Cahan, Jennifer Fewell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

36 Scopus citations


Division of labor is a key factor in the ecological success of social groups. Recent work suggests that division of labor can emerge even without specific adaptations for task specialization and that it can appear in incipient social groups as a self-organizational property. We investigated experimentally how selection and self-organization may interact during the evolution of division of labor by examining task performance in groups of normally solitary versus normally social ant queens. We created social pairs of colony-founding queens from two populations of the ant Pogonomyrmex californicus, one in which queens are normally solitary and one in which queens form foundress groups, and observed their behavior during nest excavation. In both populations, one of the two queens usually performed most of the excavation, becoming the excavation specialist. We could predict which queen would become the specialist based on their relative propensities to perform the task in other contexts, consistent with a variance-based model of task specialization. The occurrence of specialization even when group members were not adapted to social life suggests that division of labor may well have been present in incipient queen groups. However, division of labor can result in cost skew among group members, and thus, paradoxically, within-group selection may constrain or even reduce specialization. Consistent with this effect, pairs of normally solitary queens were significantly more asymmetrical in their task performance than normally social pairs, in which both queens nearly always performed the behavior to some degree.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)9-17
Number of pages9
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number1
StatePublished - May 2004


  • Division of labor
  • Pogonomyrmex californicus
  • Queen associations
  • Specialization
  • Task sharing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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