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Keywords:

  • ants;
  • co-evolution;
  • host defences;
  • selection pressure;
  • social parasites;
  • specialization

Abstract

The speed and the dynamics of the co-evolutionary process strongly depend on the relative strengths of reciprocal selection pressures exerted by the interacting species. Here, we investigate the influence of an obligate social parasite, the slave-making ant Harpagoxenus sublaevis, on populations of the two main host species Leptothorax acervorum and Leptothorax muscorum from a German ant community. A combination of genetic and demographic data allowed us to analyse the consequences of raiding pressure on the hosts’ life history and possible host preferences of the parasite. We can demonstrate that slave raids during which the social parasite pillages brood from neighbouring host colonies are both frequent and extremely destructive for both host species. Microsatellite analysis showed that, on average, a single slave-maker colony conducts more than three raids per year and that host colonies mostly perish in the aftermath of these parasite attacks. Only in few cases, surviving nests of previously raided host colonies were found in the surroundings of slave-maker colonies. As a consequence of the high prevalence of parasites and their recurrent and devastating slave raids on host colonies, the life expectancy of host colonies was severely reduced. Combining our results on host-specific parasitic colony founding and raiding frequencies with the post-raid survival rate, we can demonstrate an overall higher mortality rate for the smaller host species L. muscorum. This might be caused by a preference of H. sublaevis for this secondary host species as demographic data on host species usage indicate.