Multi-queen breeding is associated with the origin of inquiline social parasitism in ants

Romain A. Dahan, Christian Rabeling

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Social parasites exploit the brood care behavior of their hosts to raise their own offspring. Social parasites are common among eusocial Hymenoptera and exhibit a wide range of distinct life history traits in ants, bees, and wasps. In ants, obligate inquiline social parasites are workerless (or nearly-so) species that engage in lifelong interactions with their hosts, taking advantage of the existing host worker forces to reproduce and exploit host colonies’ resources. Inquiline social parasites are phylogenetically diverse with approximately 100 known species that evolved at least 40 times independently in ants. Importantly, ant inquilines tend to be closely related to their hosts, an observation referred to as ‘Emery’s Rule’. Polygyny, the presence of multiple egg-laying queens, was repeatedly suggested to be associated with the origin of inquiline social parasitism, either by providing the opportunity for reproductive cheating, thereby facilitating the origin of social parasite species, and/or by making polygynous species more vulnerable to social parasitism via the acceptance of additional egg-laying queens in their colonies. Although the association between host polygyny and the evolution of social parasitism has been repeatedly discussed in the literature, it has not been statistically tested in a phylogenetic framework across the ants. Here, we conduct a meta-analysis of ant social structure and social parasitism, testing for an association between polygyny and inquiline social parasitism with a phylogenetic correction for independent evolutionary events. We find an imperfect but significant over-representation of polygynous species among hosts of inquiline social parasites, suggesting that while polygyny is not required for the maintenance of inquiline social parasitism, it (or factors associated with it) may favor the origin of socially parasitic behavior. Our results are consistent with an intra-specific origin model for the evolution of inquiline social parasites by sympatric speciation but cannot exclude the alternative, inter-specific allopatric speciation model. The diversity of social parasite behaviors and host colony structures further supports the notion that inquiline social parasites evolved in parallel across unrelated ant genera in the formicoid clade via independent evolutionary pathways.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number14680
JournalScientific reports
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2022

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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