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Evolution of hypersocial organisation in the invasive garden ant, Lasius neglectus


Introduced ants make up 5% of the most destructive invasive species (including plants), and cause major ecological and economical problems. Their high ecological success is based on an unexpected high level of sociality, hypersociality. Through a complete loss of territorial aggression, all ants from a population form a single and extraordinary large colony.
"Hypersociality" seems to be restricted to the ants' introduced range, and underlying mechanisms of this major evolutionary transition are unclear. The invasive garden ant Lasius neglectus is the most recently introduced ant in Europe, making it a highly valuable study system for early steps of social evolution to hypersociality. Population genetic studies, behavioural observations and chemical analyses of the recognition compounds on the ants' cuticle will be performed of both introduced and native populations. This will reveal the number of independent introductions into Europe and which characters were pre-adaptations for successful invasions or the consequence of an introduction. Genetic composition of hypersocial systems is influenced by
(a) a genetic bottleneck during introduction followed by a decreased overall genetic diversity at the population level, and
(b) free mixing of individuals between nests resulting in a high genetic diversity at the nest level. Experiments will disentangle these opposing effects on the expression of nestmate recognition cues and the behavioural capacity to react on them.
Further, (b) typically increases parasite resistance of social insects, but a release of natural parasites - a general outcome of introductions - should lead to a lower investment into immune defence. Ecological immunology studies will be addressed to separate these effects.
Studies on immunology and chemical recognition cues are new techniques for me requiring intensive methodological training. The project also requires building up a tight collaboration with local researchers.

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