The dynamics of reproductive dominance in dinosaur ants

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: Inst of Integrative & Comparative Biolog


While social insect colonies are typically thought of as being models of cooperation, their societies are in fact characterised by many conflicts. These are particularly strong in species that are primitively eusocial, in which all females are potentially able to reproduce. Whether an individual becomes a reproductive queen or functionally sterile worker depends on dominance interactions that are not dissimilar from those seen in mammal societies. However, our knowledge of social insect reproductive hierarchies is largely limited to qualitative behavioural observations. In this project we will train a PhD student in two cutting-edge quantitative techniques and utilise these to investigate the reproductive dynamics in colonies of the dinosaur ant Dinoponera lucida. Basic behavioural data on individual roles will be determined in the field and colonies will then be relocated to the lab for detailed investigation. Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) tagging will be combined with focused behavioural observations to determine each individual's place in the reproductive hierarchy on a quantitative scale. Ovary development will then be determined, and the expression levels quantified using real-time PCR of three specific genes, foraging, vitellogenin, and major royal jelly protein, which are the strongest candidates for roles in, respectively, worker division of labour, egg production and mature queen behaviour. Comparison with the high resolution behavioural data will reveal the roles the genes play in reproductive division of labour at a much finer scale than has previously been obtained. Experiments will then manipulate the reproductive hierarchy to determine if the expression of the three candidate genes is plastic and changes in the ways predicted. The project will thus integrate advanced genomics with innovative behavioural data in a novel, powerful model organism to provide an entirely new level of understanding of the dynamics of reproductive dominance in primitively eusocial societies.


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