‘Supersoldier’ ants

Photo credit: Alex Wilde (myrmecos.net)

Ant colonies are organized in different castes which fulfil diverse functions like workers and soldiers. Dr Ehab Abouheif and his colleagues has shown that in Pheidole ants, monstrous ‘supersoldiers’ with huge heads and jaws can be created by activating ancient genes. Caste affiliation is determined by temperature, nutrition and the juvenile hormone levels inside the egg during development, therefore ‘supersoldier’ development can be induced in many different species, if treated with the hormone at the right time. Naturally this caste is very rare and can only be found in eight species in Mexico where they help protecting the colony by blocking entrances from invaders with their oversized heads, however the fact that these ‘supersoldiers’ can be induced in different Pheidole species is evidence that a common ancestor of them possessed this trait and that the developmental pathway is retained in all species, but shut down in most. This study has been published in Science.

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3 thoughts on “‘Supersoldier’ ants

  1. So were ants with this morphology present in natural colonies or did they induce the morphology only in the lab (through the activation of this gene)? Very interesting little read!

    • Apparently they originally noticed a few soldiers with this morphotype during sampling of a Pheidole colony on Long Island, New York. Only eight species of the Pheidole genus (which is estimated to constist of ~1000 species) are known so far exhibit this trait, but they showed that it can be activated in other Pheidole species using juvenile hormone. This supports the hypothesis that all Pheidole ants genetically inherit the ancestral potential to produce ‘supersoldiers’, even though the morphotype is no longer produced.

      • That is awesome! I think I will have to read the paper, just got to wait till I have finished exams and have a bit more time on my hands =) thank you for the reply Fabian!

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