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Keywords:

  • aphids;
  • clonality;
  • horizontal transmission;
  • mutualism;
  • myrmecophiles;
  • ants

Abstract

Clonal organisms with occasional sex are important for our general understanding of the costs and benefits that maintain sexual reproduction. Cyclically parthenogenetic aphids are highly variable in their frequency of sexual reproduction. However, studies have mostly focused on free-living aphids above ground, whereas dispersal constraints and dependence on ant-tending may differentially affect the costs and benefits of sex in subterranean aphids. Here, we studied reproductive mode and dispersal in a community of root aphids that are obligately associated with the ant Lasius flavus. We assessed the genetic population structure of four species (Geoica utricularia, Tetraneura ulmi, Forda marginata and Forda formicaria) in a Dutch population and found that all species reproduce predominantly if not exclusively asexually, so that populations consist of multiple clonal lineages. We show that population viscosity is high and winged aphids rare, consistent with infrequent horizontal transmission between ant host colonies. The absence of the primary host shrub (Pistacia) may explain the absence of sex in three of the studied species, but elm trees (Ulmus) that are primary hosts of the fourth species (T. ulmi) occurred within a few km of the study population. We discuss the extent to which obligate ant-tending and absence of primary hosts may have affected selection for permanent parthenogenesis, and we highlight the need for further study of these aphids in Southern Europe where primary hosts may occur close to L. flavus populations, so that all four root aphid species would have realistic opportunities for completing their sexual life cycle.