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Keywords:

  • concentrated changes test;
  • Isoptera;
  • mitochondrial DNA;
  • social evolution;
  • termite molecular phylogeny

Phylogenetic analysis based on sequence variation in mitochondrial large-subunit rRNA and cytochrome oxidase II genes was used to investigate the evolutionary relationships among termite families. Maximum likelihood and parsimony analyses of a combined nucleotide data set yield a single well-supported topology, which is: (((((Termitidae, Rhinotermitidae), Serritermitidae), Kalotermitidae), (Hodotermitidae, Termopsidae)), Mastotermitidae). Although some aspects of this topology are consistent with previous schemes, overall it differs from any published. Optimization of ‘true’ workers onto the tree suggests that this caste originated once, early in the history of the lineage and has been lost secondarily twice. This scenario differs from the more widely accepted notion that workers are derived and of polyphyletic origin and that extant pseudergates, or ‘false’ workers, are their developmentally unspecialized ancestor caste. Worker gains and losses covary directly in number and direction with shifts in ‘ecological life type’. A test for correlated evolution which takes phylogenetic structure into account indicates that this pattern is of biological significance and suggests that the variable occurrence of a worker caste in termites has ecological determinants, apparently linked to differences in feeding and nesting habits.