Species delimitation in native South American fire ants


K. G. Ross, Fax: +1 706 542 2279; E-mail: kenross@uga.edu


The taxonomy of fire ants has been plagued by difficulties in recognizing species on the basis of morphological characters. We surveyed allozyme markers and sequences of the mtDNA COI gene in several closely related nominal species from two areas of sympatry in the native ranges to learn whether the morphology-based delimitation of these species is supported by genetic data. We found that Solenopsis invicta and Solenopsis richteri, pest species whose distinctiveness has been debated, appear to be fully reproductively isolated at both study sites. This isolation contrasts with the extensive hybridization occurring between them in the USA, where both have been introduced. We also found strong genetic differentiation consistent with barriers to gene flow between Solenopsis quinquecuspis and the other two species. However, several lines of evidence suggest that nuclear and mitochondrial genes of S. invicta and S. richteri are introgressing into S. quinquecuspis. The latter apparently is a recently derived member of the clade that includes all three species, suggesting that there has been insufficient time for its full development of intrinsic isolating mechanisms. Finally, our discovery of genetically distinct populations within both S. invicta and S. richteri suggests the presence of previously unrecognized (cryptic) species. Their existence, together with the difficulties in developing diagnostic morphological characters for described species, imply that the group is actively radiating species and that morphological divergence generally does not keep pace with the development of reproductive isolation and neutral genetic divergence in this process.