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Mixed colonies and hybridisation of Messor harvester ant species (Hymenoptera: Formicidae)

  • Florian M. Steiner
  • Bernhard Seifert
  • Donato A. Grasso
  • Francesco Le Moli
  • Wolfgang Arthofer
  • Christian Stauffer
  • Ross H. Crozier
  • Birgit C. Schlick-Steiner
Original Article

Abstract

The Mediterranean harvester ant species Messor minor, M. cf. wasmanni, and M. capitatus can co-occur in the same habitat. In Italian populations, we encountered colonies that contained workers from more than one species as identified via standard morphology, as well as colonies with workers that appeared to be morphologically intermediate between species. This unusual finding required further analysis. We analysed such colonies using microsatellites, mitochondrial DNA and refined morphometrics, and a simple inference key for the colony-level interpretation of data from the three sources combined. We infer that Messor minor and M. cf. wasmanni engage in bidirectional interspecific gene flow. Hybrids between these two species are inferred to produce fertile offspring, which would indicate that barriers to hybridisation do not exist or can be completely overcome. This is unexpected, given that they are non-sister species and broadly sympatric in nature. Our findings also indicate the possible occurrence of hybrid-hybrid crosses, a phenomenon rarely observed in ants. We cautiously interpret the data at hand as in support of the interspecific gene flow considerably shaping the genetic makeup of populations, raising the question about a potential adaptive value of this hybridisation. Messor capitatus mixes with hybrids of the other two species, but we found no indication of hybridisation involving this species. We discuss various hypotheses on the causations of colony mixing and hybridisation in the three Messor species at the proximate and ultimate level.

Keywords

Hybridisation Bidirectional interspecific gene flow Non-sister species Inference key 

Notes

Acknowledgements

Francesco Le Moli, doyen of research on the behavioural ecology of ants, passed away when the manuscript was at an early stage. Ross H. Crozier, pioneer of sociobiology in both theoretical and empirical genetic analysis, passed away when the manuscript was at the stage of revision. The remaining authors gratefully dedicate this paper to their memory. We thank Katsusuke Yamauchi for sharing unpublished data, Sandor Csősz, Heino Konrad, Susanne Krumböck, Karl Moder, Fabrizio Rigato, Andrea Stradner and Phil S. Ward for multiple support, and Michael Stachowitsch for a linguistic revision of the manuscript. Four anonymous referees and Editor-in-Chief Olaf R. P. Bininda-Emonds provided important input. RHC was supported by the Australian Research Council (DP0665890); BCS and FMS were supported by the Austrian Science Fund (J2639-B17, J2642-B17).

Supplementary material

13127_2011_45_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (47 kb)
Esm 1 Sampling scheme (PDF 46 kb)
13127_2011_45_MOESM2_ESM.pdf (44 kb)
Esm 2 Primary morphometric data (PDF 44 kb)

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Copyright information

© Gesellschaft für Biologische Systematik 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Florian M. Steiner
    • 1
  • Bernhard Seifert
    • 2
  • Donato A. Grasso
    • 3
  • Francesco Le Moli
    • 3
  • Wolfgang Arthofer
    • 1
  • Christian Stauffer
    • 4
  • Ross H. Crozier
    • 5
  • Birgit C. Schlick-Steiner
    • 1
  1. 1.Molecular Ecology Group, Institute of EcologyUniversity of InnsbruckInnsbruckAustria
  2. 2.Senckenberg Museum of Natural HistoryGörlitzGermany
  3. 3.Department of Evolutionary and Functional BiologyUniversity of ParmaParmaItaly
  4. 4.Institute of Forest Entomology, Forest Pathology and Forest ProtectionBoku, University of Natural Resources and Life SciencesViennaAustria
  5. 5.School of Marine and Tropical BiologyJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia

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