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Recent behavioural and population genetic divergence of an invasive ant in a novel environment

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Abstract

Aim  Invasive species frequently exhibit high temporal and spatial variation in abundance. Although ecological aspects undoubtedly affect this variation, genetic factors may also play a part. The invasive unicolonial yellow crazy ant Anoplolepis gracilipes exhibits considerable variation in abundance throughout its extensive distribution in Australia’s Northern Territory, where it was first detected in the 1980s. First, we aimed to determine whether A. gracilipes variation in abundance was associated with behavioural and genetic differentiation of the population and to determine whether one or more introductions occurred. Second, we investigated whether the A. gracilipes population was genetically and behaviourally heterogeneous to determine whether population divergence has occurred since introduction.

Location  Tropical monsoonal savanna in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia.

Methods  Ant abundances were assessed at 13 sites throughout the study region. We used mitochondrial DNA sequences and microsatellite molecular markers to determine population genetic structure, which we correlated with abundance. Behavioural differentiation was assayed using aggression trials and analysed together with genetic data to investigate population divergence.

Results  Although we found considerable variation in abundance, we found no association between population structure and differences in abundance. Our analyses suggest that A. gracilipes ants in Arnhem Land resulted from a single introduction. The population is not homogeneous, however, as aggression scores varied over both genetic and geographic distance. We also found a positive relationship between genetic and geographic distance.

Main conclusions  The variation in abundance in the Arnhem Land population of A. gracilipes is clearly not owing to invasion by ants from different sources. The genetic and behavioural differentiation we observed is suggestive of incipient genetic and behavioural divergence, which may be expected over time when an invasive species enters in a new environment.

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