Division of labour improves fitness in animal societies. In ants, queens reproduce, whereas workers perform all other tasks. However, during independent colony founding, queens live as solitary insects and must be totipotent, especially in species where they need to forage. In many ants, solitary founding has been replaced by dependent founding, where queens are continuously helped by nestmate workers. Little is known about the details of this evolutionary transition. Mystrium rogeri from Madagascar and Mystrium camillae from Southeast Asia (subfamily Amblyoponinae) have winged queens, but three congeneric species from Madagascar reproduce with permanently wingless queens instead. We show that this ‘ergatoid’ caste has distinct body proportions in all three species, expressing a mixture of both queen and worker traits. Ergatoid queens have functional ovaries and spermatheca, and tiny wing rudiments. They can be as numerous as workers within a colony, but only a few mate and reproduce, whereas most behave as sterile helpers. The shape of their mandibles makes them unsuited for hunting and, together with a lack of metabolic reserves (i.e. in the form of wing muscles), this means that ergatoid queens cannot be solitary foundresses. In comparison with winged queens, ergatoid queens are less costly per capita and they experience lower mortality. They remain in their natal colonies where they can either reproduce or function as helpers, making them a ‘multi-purpose’ caste. Within the Amblyoponinae, ergatoid queens replace winged queens in Onychomyrmex as well. However, in this genus, ergatoid queens are ‘sole-purpose’, few are produced each year and they reproduce but do not work. Hence, different types of ergatoid queens evolved to replace winged queens in ants. © 2009 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2009, 98, 198–207.