Skip to main content

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, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4


  • 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

  • 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

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

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

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

  • 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.

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

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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

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

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

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

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

  • 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

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

  • 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

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

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

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

  • 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

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

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

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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

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

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

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

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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

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

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

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

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

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

  • 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

Authors and Affiliations


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

  • Received:

  • Revised:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


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