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Foundress queen mortality and early colony growth of the leafcutter ant, Atta texana (Formicidae, Hymenoptera)

Abstract

Nest-founding queens of social insects typically experience high mortality rates. Mortality is particularly severe in leafcutter ants of the fungus-growing ant genus Atta that face the challenge of cultivating a delicate fungus garden in addition to raising brood. We quantified foundress queen survivorship of Atta texana that were collected in northwest Texas and maintained in single-queen laboratory nests, and we tracked the rate of colony growth during the first precarious months of the colony lifecycle. Ninety days post-mating flight, only 16.3 % of 141 of the original queens had survived, and colony growth rates varied markedly across the surviving colonies. Worker production was weakly correlated with fungus garden growth over the course of early colony development. Dead queens became overgrown by the parasitic fungi Fusarium oxysporum (26 % of dead queens) and Aspergillus flavus (34 %), and these fungi are therefore possible causes of queen mortality. The phorid fly Megaselia scalaris emerged from one dead queen, but was unlikely the cause of death. Under natural conditions, intense competition between conspecific colonies can amplify small differences in initial growth rates to generate drastic differences in colony fitness. The observed variation in colony growth rate therefore suggests that colony growth is likely an important target for selection to optimize fitness in Atta texana.

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Acknowledgments

We are grateful to M. Kardish and Z. Phillips for their assistance in data collection and ant care, and to S. Amador-Vargas, E. Dietrich, C. Fang, R. Ma, L. Meirelles, Z. Phillips, C. Smith and two anonymous reviewers for comments that greatly improved this manuscript. The study was funded by an Integrative Biology Fellowship to HEM, and National Science Foundation awards DEB-0919519 and DEB-1354666 to UGM.

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Correspondence to H. E. Marti.

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Marti, H.E., Carlson, A.L., Brown, B.V. et al. Foundress queen mortality and early colony growth of the leafcutter ant, Atta texana (Formicidae, Hymenoptera). Insect. Soc. 62, 357–363 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00040-015-0413-7

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Keywords

  • Incipient colony
  • Disease
  • Parasite
  • Fusarium oxysporum
  • Aspergillus flavus
  • Megaselia scalaris