Dynamics of an ant–ant obligate mutualism: colony growth, density dependence and frequency dependence


Kirk E. Anderson, Fax: 520 670 6493; E-mail: keanders@email.arizona.edu


In insect societies, worker vs. queen development (reproductive caste) is typically governed by environmental factors, but many Pogonomyrmex seed-harvester ants exhibit strict genetic caste determination, resulting in an obligate mutualism between two reproductively isolated lineages. Same-lineage matings produce fertile queens while alternate-lineage matings produce sterile workers. Because new virgin queens mate randomly with multiple males of each lineage type, and both worker and queen phenotypes are required for colony growth and future reproduction, fitness is influenced by the relative frequency of each lineage involved in the mutualistic breeding system. While models based solely on frequency-dependent selection predict the convergence of lineage frequencies towards equal (0.5/0.5), we surveyed the lineage ratios of 49 systems across the range of the mutualism and found that the global lineage frequency differed significantly from equal. Multiple regression analysis of our system survey data revealed that the density and relative frequency of one lineage decreases at lower elevations, while the frequency of the alternate lineage increases with total colony density. While the production of the first worker cohort is largely frequency dependent, relying on the random acquisition of worker-biased sperm stores, subsequent colony growth is independent of lineage frequency. We provide a simulation model showing that a net ecological advantage held by one lineage can lead to the maintenance of stable but asymmetric lineage frequencies. Collectively, these findings suggest that a combination of frequency-dependent and frequency-independent mechanisms can generate many different localized and independently evolving system equilibria.