The evolution of social parasitism in Formica ants revealed by a global phylogeny

Marek L. Borowiec, Stefan P. Cover, Christian Rabeling

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


Studying the behavioral and life history transitions from a cooperative, eusocial life history to exploitative social parasitism allows for deciphering the conditions under which changes in behavior and social organization lead to diversification. The Holarctic ant genus Formica is ideally suited for studying the evolution of social parasitism because half of its 172 species are confirmed or suspected social parasites, which includes all three major classes of social parasitism known in ants. However, the life history transitions associated with the evolution of social parasitism in this genus are largely unexplored. To test competing hypotheses regarding the origins and evolution of social parasitism, we reconstructed a global phylogeny of Formica ants. The genus originated in the Old World ∼30 Ma ago and dispersed multiple times to the New World and back. Within Formica, obligate dependent colony-founding behavior arose once from a facultatively polygynous common ancestor practicing independent and facultative dependent colony foundation. Temporary social parasitism likely preceded or arose concurrently with obligate dependent colony founding, and dulotic social parasitism evolved once within the obligate dependent colony-founding clade. Permanent social parasitism evolved twice from temporary social parasitic ancestors that rarely practiced colony budding, demonstrating that obligate social parasitism can originate from a facultative parasitic background in socially polymorphic organisms. In contrast to permanently socially parasitic ants in other genera, the high parasite diversity in Formica likely originated via allopatric speciation, highlighting the diversity of convergent evolutionary trajectories resulting in nearly identical parasitic life history syndromes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2026029118
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number38
StatePublished - Sep 21 2021


  • Brood parasitism
  • Dulosis
  • Emery’s rule
  • Formicidae
  • Inquilinism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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