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Keywords:

  • bacteria;
  • coevolution;
  • insects;
  • symbiosis;
  • trophic levels

Ants are quite possibly the most successful insects on Earth, with an estimated 10 000 species worldwide, making up at least a third of the global insect biomass, and comprising several times the biomass of all land vertebrates combined. Ant species have diverse trophic habits, including herbivory, hunting/gathering, scavenging and predation and are distributed in diverse habitats, performing a variety of important ecosystem functions. Often they exert these functions while engaging in symbiotic associations with other insects, plants or microbes; however, remarkably little work has focused on the potential contribution of the ants’ gut symbionts. This issue of Molecular Ecology contains a study by Anderson et al. (2012), who take a comparative approach to explore the link between trophic levels and ant microbiomes, specifically, to address three main questions: (i) Do closely related herbivorous ants share similar bacterial communities? (ii) Do species of predatory ants share similar bacterial communities? (iii) Do distantly related herbivorous ants tend to share similar bacterial communities? By doing so, the authors demonstrate that ants with similar trophic habits appear to have relatively conserved gut microbiomes, suggesting symbiont functions that directly relate to dietary preference of the ant host. These findings suggest an ecological role of gut symbionts in ants, for example, in metabolism and/or protection, and the comparative approach taken supports a model of co-evolution between ant species and specific core symbiont microbiomes. This study, thereby, highlights the omnipresence and importance of gut symbioses—also in the Hymenoptera—and suggests that these hitherto overlooked microbes likely have contributed to the ecological success of the ants.