• Community;
  • environmental filtering;
  • gradient;
  • hymenoptera;
  • phylogenetic diversity
  1. Severe environmental conditions filter community species compositions, forming clines of functional diversity along environmental gradients. Here, the changes in functional diversity in ant assemblages with severe environmental conditions in the Swiss Alps were investigated.
  2. Eight sites were sampled along an elevation gradient (1800–2550 m). The variation in functional diversity was analysed along an elevation gradient considering four traits: social structure (monogynous vs. polygynous), worker size, pupal development, and nest structure.
  3. Ant species richness and functional diversity decreased with decreasing temperature. Species found in colder habitats tended to live in subterranean nests rather than in mounds and exhibit a polymorphism in queen number, either within or across populations. The phylogenetic diversity did not decrease at colder temperature: Formicinae and Myrmicinae occupied the full range of elevations investigated.
  4. An insulation experiment indicated that mounds are more thermally insulated against the cold compared with soil. The absence of a mound-building ant from high elevations probably results from a reduction in the amount of vegetal materials provided by coniferous trees.
  5. More severe abiotic conditions at higher elevations act as a filter on ant assemblages, directly through physiological tolerances to the abiotic conditions and indirectly as the vegetation necessary for nest building shifts with elevation.