Ant Research Roundup: Parasites Edition

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One measure of the importance of ants is the number of parasites that have evolved to exploit their abundant resources. This week has seen a cluster of new ant parasite studies. Among them:

Formica subintegra, photographed while raiding in upstate New York.

1. Socially parasitic Formica move nests during raiding season to richer hunting grounds. From the abstract of Apple et al (2014):

Five summers of monitoring the raiding behavior of 11–14 colonies of the slavemakers Formica subintegra and Formica pergandei revealed relatively frequent nest relocations: of 14 colonies that have been tracked for at least three of 5 years, all but one moved at least once by invading existing host nests. Movements tended to occur in the middle of the raiding season and were typically followed by continued raiding of nearby host colonies. Spatial patterns of movements suggest that their purpose is to gain access to more host colonies to raid.

source: Apple, J.L., Lewandowski, S.L., Levine, J.L. 2014. Nest relocation in the slavemaking ants Formica subintegra and Formica pergandei: a response to host nest availability that increases raiding success. Insectes Sociaux, doi: 10.1007/s00040-014-0359-1

Myrmica queen in Arizona covered in mites.
2. Myrmica just can’t catch a break. A literature survey by Witek at al reports an array of about 40 parasites on these common holarctic ants, including butterfly larvae, socially parasitic ants, fly larvae, fungi, and others.

My sense is that Myrmica isn’t unusual in its parasite load; rather, Myrmica geography has lent itself to observation by natural-history obsessed northern Europeans. As myrmecology advances elsewhere, plenty of other ants will turn out to have lives just as miserable as Myrmica‘s.

source: Witek, M., Barbero, F., Markó, B. 2014. Myrmica ants host highly diverse parasitic communities: from social parasites to microbes. Insectes Sociaux, doi: 10.1007/s00040-014-0362-6

Ophiocordyceps sp. on a Camponotus in Belize.

3. The famous ant-killing Ophiocordyceps fungus, when injected into a non-host species, fails to induce the stereotyped death-bite behavior. From the abstract of a paper by de Bekker et al:

…brain manipulation is species-specific seemingly because the fungus produces a specific array of compounds as a reaction to the presence of the host brain it has evolved to manipulate.

The real news here is the development of a technique to infect the fungus across species and monitor the results. This method will be powerful going forward, especially since the test of specificity in this study is weaker than the title would suggest. The researchers only injected a single non-host Camponotus, and they’ll need more for a proper assay of host range. I presume such work is coming, as the Hughes lab is generally thorough and highly productive.

source: de Bekker, C., Quevillon, L., Smith, P.B., Fleming, K., Ghosh, D., Patterson, A.D., Hughes, D.P. 2014. Species-specific ant brain manipulation by a specialized fungal parasite. BMC Evolutionary Biology 2014, 14:166  doi:10.1186/s12862-014-0166-3

Mycocepurus castrator (photo by Christian Rabeling)

4. A parasite of fungus-growing ants provides convincing evidence for sympatric speciation. Older generations of biologists have been slow to accept that new species can arise while in physical proximity to their parent species, as mating between forms could erase any nascent differences. But Christian Rabeling et al have genetic data in Mycocepurus goeldii and its parasite M. castrator (ouch!) that make any other scenario highly unlikely. From the abstract:

Based on differing patterns of relationship in mitochondrial and individual nuclear genes, we conclude that host and parasite occupy a temporal window in which lineage sorting has taken place in the mitochondrial genes but not yet in the nuclear alleles. We infer that the host originated first and that the parasite originated subsequently from a subset of the host species’ populations, providing empirical support for the hypothesis that inquiline parasites can evolve reproductive isolation while living sympatrically with their hosts.

source: Rabeling, C. Schultz, T.R., Pierce, N.E., Bacci, M. 2014. A Social Parasite Evolved Reproductive Isolation from Its Fungus-Growing Ant Host in Sympatry. Current Biology. doi:

6 thoughts on “Ant Research Roundup: Parasites Edition”

    1. BioBob, emailing the authors and asking politely can sometimes get you a copy of a paper. It varies, but authors are sometimes permitted to distribute articles on a limited basis for personal use.

      1. All taken care of now, thanks, Ben. I always got reprints to send out for my papers but those times may be long past. Dunno how they do it now and I am just a curious bystander.

        As usual, I ended up with more questions than answers after reading it. Never fails, but there are a couple of good stories in there at any rate. Always love a good story. Always hate absurd prices.

  1. Regarding the Rabeling et al. paper, is everyone convinced that this is an example of sympatric speciation? It is interesting that the different populations of M. goeldi group by geography and that M. castrator is not recovered as being sister to its host population. Both of these observations could be explained by lineage lineage sorting and the presence of some isolation by distance within M. goeldi, but how do you rule out the existence of cryptic species within M. goeldi without a more thorough population genetic analysis?

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