Worker dominance and policing in the ant Temnothorax unifasciatus
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In many species of eusocial Hymenoptera, conflict about the production of males is resolved through “policing.” Recent studies in wasps and the ant Temnothorax unifasciatus suggest that in these species policing workers are dominant themselves and selfishly increase their own chances of later becoming fertile. Policing may therefore to some extent be associated with dominance and selfishness, and dominance and policing behaviour are indeed difficult to distinguish and often not mutually exclusive. Moreover, selfish policing requires that workers form rank orders already in the presence of the queen. Here, we try to allocate aggressiveness by workers towards policing and/or dominance behaviour and investigate whether hierarchies based on subtle, non-aggressive interactions exist in queenright colonies of the ant T. unifasciatus. We either split colonies into a queenright and queenless halve or temporarily removed the queen from complete colonies, which in both cases allows a few dominant workers to lay eggs in the queenless colony. Reunification of colony halves and return of the queen to orphaned colonies led to aggression against those workers that had become fertile during the absence of the queen. Dominant workers in reunited, split colonies were more severely attacked than those in orphaned colonies after return of the queen. Furthermore, we observed that workers, which later became dominant egg layers under queenless conditions, have more contact with the queen than other workers. Both results corroborate the existence of rank relationships among workers in queenright colonies and show that results from policing experiments may be affected by the disturbance of pre-existing hierarchies through colony splitting.