Multi-year genetic sampling indicates maternal gene flow via colony emigrations in the army ant Eciton burchellii parvispinum

  • T. W. Soare
  • A. Kumar
  • K. A. Naish
  • S. O’DonnellEmail author
Research Article


Sex-biased dispersal occurs when one sex disperses more frequently or farther than the opposite sex. In ants, dispersal is often male biased and males typically contribute more strongly to gene flow within and among ant populations. However, army ants may offer an exceptional case of female-biased dispersal, because army ant colonies (particularly species in the Neotropical genus Eciton) routinely emigrate among nest sites. We hypothesized that maternal mobility via successive colony emigrations would reduce the relative male bias in dispersal, and that emigrations would contribute to gene flow within an Eciton population. We genotyped workers (highly variable DNA microsatellite loci) from Eciton burchellii parvispinum colonies collected over a 10 × 10 km area in Monteverde, Costa Rica. Samples were spaced approximately 3 years apart (in 2006 and 2009), the typical time between colony reproductive bouts. We used worker genotypes to reconstruct the genotypes of their mother queens and of a subset of the males that sired the workers. We then analyzed the population genetic structure of the queen and male genotypes by comparing individual-based relatedness estimates for each sex across geographic distance and over time. There was no significant difference in spatial genetic structure between the sexes, either within or between the 2006 and 2009 samples. There was some evidence against genetic philopatry: 2009 queens were significantly unrelated to 2006 queens collected nearby (within 0.5 km). The patterns suggest maternal dispersal via emigrations contributes to gene flow, reducing or eliminating male biases in dispersal. From two populations, we estimated average queen dispersal distance to be 0.63–1.04 km, a greater distance than many winged ant queens disperse. Because emigrations over the lifetime of army ant queens may contribute to gene flow across the landscape, habitat connectivity should be maintained to permit colony emigrations and support genetic diversity in populations of this keystone species.


Habitat fragmentation Isolation by distance Multi-year sampling Restricted dispersal Spatial genetic structure 



Yamile Molina, Sebastián Jurado, and Sean Tully assisted with field collections. Cara Allen and Anna Pollock assisted with sample preparation and DNA fragment amplification. We thank Jim Wolfe, the Stuckey family, the Rockwell family, the Vitosi family, the Salazar family, the Monteverde Conservation League, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, the Monteverde Butterfly Garden, Ecolodge San Luis and the University of Georgia for allowing us to work on their lands. Residents of Monteverde, especially the Joyce-van Dusen family and the Monteverde Institute provided logistical support. We thank Bruce Godfrey and members of the Naish lab for genetic troubleshooting, especially Todd Seamons for help with allele scoring. Field research was conducted under permits from the Costa Rican government (MINAE scientific passports #0387 and #04303), and in accordance with the laws of Costa Rica. This work was supported by the National Science Foundation (grant numbers IBN 0347315, IOS 1209072, IOS 0923680, and a Research Experiences for Undergraduates supplement to S.O’D.); the University of Washington Royalty Research Fund; a grant from the Organization for Tropical Studies to A.K.; and the University of Washington Department of Psychology Earl ‘Buz’ Hunt Fellowship to T.W.S.

Supplementary material

40_2019_739_MOESM1_ESM.docx (209 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 209 kb)


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Copyright information

© International Union for the Study of Social Insects (IUSSI) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.NewburyportUSA
  2. 2.Institute of International EducationWashington, DCUSA
  3. 3.School of Aquatic and Fishery SciencesUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA
  4. 4.Department of Biodiversity Earth and Environmental ScienceDrexel UniversityPhiladelphiaUSA

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