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Population genetic signatures of diffuse co-evolution between leaf-cutting ants and their cultivar fungi


Alexander S. Mikheyev, Fax: 1-512-471-3878; E-mail:


Switching of symbiotic partners pervades most mutualisms, despite mechanisms that appear to enforce partner fidelity. To investigate the interplay of forces binding and dissolving mutualistic pairings, we investigated partner fidelity at the population level in the attine ant–fungal cultivar mutualism. The ants and their cultivars exhibit both broad-scale co-evolution, as well as cultivar switching, with short-term symbiont fidelity maintained by vertical transmission of maternal garden inoculates via dispersing queens and by the elimination of alien cultivar strains. Using microsatellite markers, we genotyped cultivar fungi associated with five co-occurring Panamanian attine ant species, representing the two most derived genera, leaf-cutters Atta and Acromyrmex. Despite the presence of mechanisms apparently ensuring the cotransmission of symbiont genotypes, different species and genera of ants sometimes shared identical fungus garden genotypes, indicating widespread cultivar exchange. The cultivar population was largely unstructured with respect to host ant species, with only 10% of the structure in genetic variance being attributable to partitioning among ant species and genera. Furthermore, despite significant genetic and ecological dissimilarity between Atta and Acromyrmex, generic difference accounted for little, if any, variance in cultivar population structure, suggesting that cultivar exchange dwarfs selective forces that may act to create co-adaptive ant–cultivar combinations. Thus, binding forces that appear to enforce host fidelity are relatively weak and pairwise associations between cultivar lineages and ant species have little opportunity for evolutionary persistence. This implicates that mechanisms other than partner fidelity feedback play important roles in stabilizing the leafcutter ant–fungus mutualism over evolutionary time.