Self-restraint and sterility in workers of Acromyrmex and Atta leafcutter ants

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Michiel Bendert Dijkstra, David Richard Nash, Jacobus Jan Boomsma

Queens of leafcutter ants (Acromyrmex and Atta) are highly multiply mated, resulting in a potential queenworker and worker-worker conflict over who should produce the males in the colony. We studied whether this conflict is expressed, by determining the amount of reproductive egg-laying by workers in queenright colonies of Acromyrmex echinatior, Acromyrmex octospinosus, Atta cephalotes, and Atta sexdens through ovary dissections. Worker sons are absent or rare in queenright Acromyrmex colonies, but can be produced in orphaned colonies. In Atta, most workers have rudimentary ovaries that never produce eggs, but a few (mostly small and medium workers that form a retinue around the queen) lay many trophic eggs for consumption by the queen. These eggs are large, flaccid, and lacking in yolk compared to queen-laid eggs, and appear to be always inviable. In Acromyrmex, many workers (especially young large workers) lay eggs that are similar in size to queen-laid eggs, but mostly with a reduced amount of yolk. Trophic eggs appear to be an important source of food for larvae in Acromyrmex (especially in Ac. echinatior), but not in Atta. Five (0.8) of 616 dissected Ac. echinatior workers but no Ac. octospinosus workers (n = 552), had ready-to-lay reproductive eggs. Old workers in all four species are incapable of laying eggs due to ovary resorption. We conclude that Atta workers are sterile, while Acromyrmex workers display reproductive self-restraint, possibly representing an earlier stage in the evolution towards worker sterility. Worker selfrestraint in Acromyrmex may be maintained by a queen or worker policing mechanism, but individual cost-benefit explanations may also apply.
Original languageEnglish
JournalInsectes Sociaux
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)67-76
Publication statusPublished - 2005

Bibliographical note

Key words. Ovarian dissections - trophic eggs - ovary resorption - worker egg-laying - worker reproduction

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