The ecological benefits of larger colony size may promote polygyny in ants

R. Boulay, X. Arnan, X. Cerdá, J. Retana

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

37 Citations (Scopus)


© 2014 European Society For Evolutionary Biology. How polygyny evolved in social insect societies is a long-standing question. This phenomenon, which is functionally similar to communal breeding in vertebrates, occurs when several queens come together in the same nest to lay eggs that are raised by workers. As a consequence, polygyny drastically reduces genetic relatedness among nestmates. It has been suggested that the short-term benefits procured by group living may outweigh the costs of sharing the same nesting site and thus contribute to organisms rearing unrelated individuals. However, tests of this hypothesis are still limited. To examine the evolutionary emergence of polygyny, we reviewed the literature to build a data set containing life-history traits for 149 Palearctic ant species and combined this data set with a reconstructed phylogeny. We show that monogyny is the ancestral state and that polygyny has evolved secondarily and independently throughout the phylogenetic tree. The occurrence of polygyny is significantly correlated with larger colony size, dependent colony founding and ecological dominance. Although polydomy (when a colony simultaneously uses several connected nests) tends to occur more frequently in polygynous species, this trend is not significant when phylogenetic history is accounted for. Overall, our results indicate that polygyny may have evolved in ants in spite of the reduction in nestmate relatedness because large colony size provides immediate ecological advantages, such as the more efficient use of temporal food resources. We suggest that the competitive context of ant communities may have provided the conditions necessary for the evolution of polygyny in some clades.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2856-2863
JournalJournal of Evolutionary Biology
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2014


  • Comparative studies
  • Evolution of co-operation
  • Insects
  • Life history evolution


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