Evolutionary Ecology

, Volume 20, Issue 6, pp 565–574 | Cite as

A novel hypothesis for the origin of the sexual division of labor in termites: which sex should be soldiers?

Original Paper


Sexual specialization and skewed sex ratios of the altruistic castes, especially soldiers, are common in many termite taxa. However, no theoretical or empirical studies have explained the origin of the sexual division of labor in termites. In most termite species, female alates are larger than male alates, and mature queens are much larger than kings, with females under consistent selection for high fertility. Therefore, females usually have the potential to be larger than males. Here, I present a novel preadaptation hypothesis that potential sexual differences in the suitability for the caste give rise to the sexual division of labor, and I provide the first evidence in support of this hypothesis in termites. Defense in Reticulitermes is typically performed by soldiers via mandibular and phragmotic defense in which soldiers with pluglike heads block openings, thus preventing enemies from invading the nest. Phragmotic defense requires that soldiers have heads wide enough to plug nest openings. Therefore, a size threshold for workers that develop into soldiers is a likely adaptation for effective defense. I show that sexual size dimorphism (SSD) and a size threshold for soldiers promote skewed sex ratios. A female-biased soldier sex ratio was observed in species with SSD, whereas there was no bias in soldier sex ratio in species without SSD. Thus, SSD and soldier sex ratio data from several Reticulitermes species support the preadaptation hypothesis.


Reticulitermes Sex ratio Sexual dimorphism Sexual specialization Soldier 


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I thank Drs. N. E. Pierce, Takayoshi Nishida, Kenji Fujisaki and Fusao Nakasuji for useful discussion. This research was supported by funds from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (no. 03466, 06308 and 17770016) and funds from Inoue Foundation for Science.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Laboratory of Insect Ecology, Graduate School of Environmental ScienceOkayama UniversityOkayamaJapan

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