Colony founding by the ant Myrmelachista flavocotea


Identifying key life history characters is crucial to understanding the selective forces that influence species interactions and reciprocal evolution. We often know little about colony-founding behavior and colony structure of ants involved in obligate interactions with plants. Here, I describe colony-founding behavior of Myrmelachista flavocotea (Formicidae: Formicinae) on its obligate host plants Ocotea atirrensis and O. dendrodaphne (Lauraceae) in a lowland Caribbean rainforest at La Selva Biological Station, Costa Rica. Ocotea seedlings produce specialized nodules on the main stem that are used as domatia by founding queens. In this study, Ocotea seedlings were colonized by multiple haplometrotically founding M. flavocotea queens. Mature colonies typically had only a single queen, apparently as a result of secondary monogyny. The number of foundress queens per tree was positively correlated with seedling height and stem diameter (nesting space) at time of colony founding. The extent to which foundress queens cooperate in colony founding is not known. Nonetheless, colony establishment by multiple foundress queens may be critical in ensuring the successful founding by at least one queen, thus allowing the perpetuation of the Myrmelachista-Ocotea interaction.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4


  1. Berryman A.A. 1988. Towards a unified theory of plant defense. In: Mechanisms of Woody Plant Defenses against Insects (Mattson W.J., Levieux J. and Bernard-Dagan C., Eds) Springer, New York. pp 39–55

  2. Bartz S.H. and Hölldobler B. 1982. Colony founding in Myrmecocystus mimicus Wheeler (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) and the evolution of foundress associations. Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 10: 137–147

  3. Beattie A.J. 1985. The Evolutionary Ecology of Ant-Plant Mutualisms. Cambridge University Press, New York

  4. Bourke A.F.G. and Franks N.R. 1995. Social Evolution in Ants. Princeton University Press, Princeton

  5. Brown M.J. and Bonhoeffer S. 2003. On the evolution of caustral colony founding in ants. Evol. Ecol. Res. 5: 305–313

  6. Cameron A.C. and Windmeijer F.A. 1996. R-squared measures for count data regression models with applications to health-care utilization. J. Bus. Econ. Stat. 14: 209–220.

  7. Chesson P. and Huntly N. 1988. Community consequences of life-history traits in a variable environment. Ann. Zool. Fenn. 25: 5–16

  8. Choe J.C. and Perlman D.L. 1997. Social conflict and cooperation among founding queens in ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). In: The Evolution of Social Behavior in Insects and Arachnids (Choe J.C. and Crespi J., Eds). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. pp 392–406

  9. Feldhaar H., Fiala B. and Gadau J. 2005. A shift in colony founding behaviour in the obligate plant-ant Crematogaster (Decacrema) morphospecies 2. Insect. Soc. 52: 222–230

  10. Feldhaar H., Fiala B., bin Hashim R. and Maschwitz U. 2000. Maintaining and ant-plant symbiosis: secondary polygyny in the Macaranga triloba-Crematogaster sp. association. Naturwissenschaften 87: 408–411

  11. Fiala B. and Maschwitz U. 1990. Studies on the south east asian and-plant association Crematogaster borneensis/Macaranga: adaptations of the ant partner. Insect. Soc. 37: 212–231

  12. Heinze J. and Keller L. 2000. Alternative reproductive strategies: a queen perspective in ants. Trends Ecol. Evol. 15: 508–512

  13. Herbers J.M. 1986 Nest site limitation and facultative polygyny in the ant Leptothorax longispinosus. Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 19: 115–122

  14. Hölldobler B. and Wilson E.O. 1977. The number of queens: an important trait in ant evolution Naturwissenschaften 64: 8–15

  15. Hölldobler B. and Wilson E.O. 1990. The Ants. Harvard University Press, Cambridge

  16. Izzo T.J., Bruna E.M., Vasconcelos H.L. and Inouye B.D. 2009. Cooperative colony founding alters the outcome of interspecific competition between Amazonian plant-ants. Insect. Soc. 56: 341–345

  17. Janzen D.H. 1966. Coevolution of mutualism between ants and Acacias in Central America. Evolution 20: 249–275

  18. Janzen D.H. 1967. Interaction of the bull’s-horn acacia (Acacia cornigera L.) with an ant inhabitant (Pseudomyrmex ferruginea F. Smith) in Eastern Mexico. Univ. Kansas Sci. Bull. 47: 315–558

  19. Janzen D.H. 1973. Evolution of polygynous obligate acacia-ants in western Mexico. J. Anim. Ecol. 42: 727–750

  20. Kuhn K.M. 2013. Spatial and temporal variation in an ant-plant interaction. PhD Dissertation, University of Connecticut, Storrs

  21. Longino J.T. 1989. Geographic variation and community structure in an ant-plant mutualism: Azteca and Cecropia in Costa Rica. Biotropica 21: 126–132

  22. Longino J.T. 1991a. Azteca ants in Cecropia trees; taxonomy, colony structure, and behaviour. In: Ant-Plant Interactions (Huxley C.R. and Cutler F., Eds). Oxford University Press, Oxford. pp 271–418

  23. Longino J.T. 1991b.Taxonomy of the Cecropia-inhabiting Azteca ants. J. Nat. Hist. 25: 1571–1602

  24. Longino J.T. 2006. A taxonomic review of the genus Myrmelachista (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) in Costa Rica. Zootaxa 1141: 1–54

  25. Maschwitz U., Fiala B., Davies S.J. and Linsenmair K.E. 1996. A South-East Asian myrmecophyte with two alternative inhabitants: Camponotus or Crematogaster as partners of Macaranga lamellata. Ecotropica 2: 29–40

  26. McKey D. 1988. Promising new directions in the study of ant-plant mutualisms. In: Proc. 14th Int. Bot. Congr. (Greuter W. and Zimmer B., Eds), Koeltz Scientific Books, Knigstein. pp 335–355

  27. McNett K., Longino J., Barriga P. Vargas O., Phillips K. and Sagers C.L. 2010. Evidence for mutualism in a cryptic ant-plant association: Myrmelachista flavocotea (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) and Ocotea spp. (Lauraceae). Insect. Soc. 57: 67–72

  28. McPherson T.Y. 2006. Tree species performance in a tropical forest: the role of soil nutrients and topography. Unpublished M.S. Thesis: University of Connecticut, Storrs

  29. O’Hara R.B. and Kotze D.J. 2010. Do not log-transform count data. Method. Ecol. Evol. 1: 118–122

  30. Rico-Gray V. and Oliveira P.S. 2007. The Ecology and Evolution of Ant-Plant Interactions. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago

  31. Pamilo P. 1991. Evolution of colony characteristics in social insects. II. Number of reproductive individuals. Am. Nat. 138: 412–433

  32. Pamilo P. and Rosengren R. 1984 Evolution of nesting strategies of ants: genetic evidence from different population types of Formica ants. Biol. J. Linn. Soc. 21: 331–348

  33. Porter S.D. and Tschinkel W.R. 1986. Adaptive value of nanitic workers in newly founded red imported fire ant colonies (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Ann. Entomol. Soc. Amer. 79: 723–726

  34. Stout J. 1979. An association of an ant, a mealy bug, and an understory tree from a Costa Rican rain forest. Biotropica 11: 309–311

  35. Trunzer B., Heinze J. and Hölldobler B. 1998. Cooperative colony founding and experimental primary polygyny in the ponerine ant Pachycondyla villosa. Insect. Soc. 45: 267–276

  36. Tschinkel W.R. 2006. The Fire Ants. The Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, Cambridge

  37. Tschinkel W.R. and Howard D.F. 1983. Colony founding by pleometrosis in the fire ant, Solenopsis invicta. Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 12: 103–113

  38. Vasconcelos H.L. 1993. Ant colonization of Maieta guianensis seedlings, an Amazon ant-plant. Oecologia 95: 439–443

  39. van der Werff H. 2002. A synopsis of Ocotea (Lauraceae) in Central America and southern Mexico. Ann. Missouri Bot. Gard. 89: 429–451

  40. Wheeler W.M. 1933. Colony-Founding among Ants: With Accounts of some Primitive Australian Species. Harvard University Press, Cambridge

  41. Yumoto T. and Maruhashi T. 1999. Pruning behavior and intercolony competition of Tetraponera (Pachysima) aethiops (Pseudomyrmecinae, Hymenoptera) in Barteria fistulosa in a tropical forest, Democratic Republic of Congo. Ecol. Res. 14: 393–404

Download references


I am grateful to Robert K. Colwell, Jack Longino, Robin Chazdon, Sal Agosta, Dan Detzi, and two anonymous reviewers for comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this manuscript. The following people were instrumental in data collection: Sarah Barlett, Stephanie Calora, Elena Dierick, Amanda Good, John Melien, Tiffany Phillips, and Bram Sercu. Funding for this project was provided by the Lawrence R. Penner Endowment to the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History, the Ronald Bamford Endowment to the University of Connecticut Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, the Organization for Tropical Studies, the Explorers Club, a NSF Dissertation Improvement Grant, awarded to K. M. Kuhn, and NSF grants DEB 0639979 and DBI 0851245, awarded to R. K. Colwell.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to K. M. Kuhn.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 48 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Kuhn, K.M. Colony founding by the ant Myrmelachista flavocotea . Insect. Soc. 61, 239–245 (2014).

Download citation


  • Ant-plant interaction
  • Colony founding
  • Dependent founding
  • Haplometrosis
  • Secondary monogyny
  • Myrmelachista
  • Ocotea