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Keywords:

  • dispersal;
  • inbreeding;
  • Isoptera;
  • microsatellites;
  • Rhinotermitidae;
  • social organization;
  • urban invasion

Abstract

Reticulitermes santonensis is a subterranean termite that invades urban areas in France and elsewhere where it causes damage to human-built structures. We investigated the breeding system, colony and population genetic structure, and mode of dispersal of two French populations of R. santonensis. Termite workers were sampled from 43 and 31 collection points, respectively, from a natural population in west–central France (in and around the island of Oléron) and an urban population (Paris). Ten to 20 workers per collection point were genotyped at nine variable microsatellite loci to determine colony identity and to infer colony breeding structure. There was a total of 26 colonies, some of which were spatially expansive, extending up to 320 linear metres. Altogether, the analysis of genotype distribution, F-statistics and relatedness coefficients suggested that all colonies were extended families headed by numerous neotenics (nonwinged precocious reproductives) probably descended from pairs of primary (winged) reproductives. Isolation by distance among collection points within two large colonies from both populations suggested spatially separated reproductive centres with restricted movement of workers and neotenics. There was a moderate level of genetic differentiation (FST = 0.10) between the Oléron and Paris populations, and the number of alleles was significantly higher in Oléron than in Paris, as expected if the Paris population went through bottlenecks when it was introduced from western France. We hypothesize that the diverse and flexible breeding systems found in subterranean termites pre-adapt them to invade new or marginal habitats. Considering that R. santonensis may be an introduced population of the North American species R. flavipes, a breeding system consisting primarily of extended family colonies containing many neotenic reproductives may facilitate human-mediated spread and establishment of R. santonensis in urban areas with harsh climates.