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Keywords:

  • complexity;
  • reproductive conflict;
  • social evolution;
  • social insect;
  • worker policing

The broad limits of mature colony size in social insect species are likely to be set by ecological factors. However, any change in colony size has a number of important social consequences. The most fundamental is a change in the expected reproductive potential of workers. If colony size rises, workers experience a fall in their chances of becoming replacement reproductives and, it is shown, increasing selection for mutual inhibition of one another's reproduction (worker policing). As workers’ reproductive potential falls, the degree of dimorphism between reproductive and worker castes (morphological skew) can rise. This helps explain why small societies have low morphological skew and tend to be simple in organization, whereas large societies have high morphological skew and tend to be complex. The social consequences of change in colony size may also alter colony size itself in a process of positive feedback. For these reasons, small societies should be characterized by intense, direct conflict over reproduction and caste determination. By contrast, conflict in large societies should predominantly be over brood composition, and members of these societies should be relatively compliant to manipulation of their caste. Colony size therefore deserves fuller recognition as a key determinant, along with kin structure, of social complexity, the reproductive potential of helpers, the degree of caste differentiation, and the nature of within-group conflict.