Ecology of Social Evolution

pp 151-174

The Ecology of Social Evolution in Termites

  • Judith KorbAffiliated with

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Termites (Isoptera) belong to the classical eusocial insects and their resemblance to ant colonies is so striking that they are commonly known as ‘white ants’. However, the termites evolved social life independently, long before the ants. Their different ancestry also is reflected in several fundamental differences in the organization of the colonies. This chapter aims at summarizing the state-of-the-art in termite research and comparing the results with other social invertebrate and vertebrate systems in an attempt to reveal common principles underlying social evolution. First, I provide an overview of termites’ biology and classification. I continue with a summary on the ‘hunt’ for a genetical explanation of the evolution of termite’ eusociality. Using a case study, I summarize ecological factors favoring cooperation in a lower termite and show the relevance of these results for other termite species. Based on these results I outline the potential evolutionary transitions in termite eusociality. Finally, I compare the driving forces in termites with those in cooperatively breeding vertebrates and offer a potential explanation why eusociality rarely evolved in vertebrates, despite often strikingly similar ecological pressures in both groups.