Caste-specific expression of genetic variation in the size of antibiotic-producing glands of leaf-cutting ants

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Social insect castes represent some of the most spectacular examples of phenotypic plasticity, with each caste being associated with different environmental conditions during their life. Here we examine the level of genetic variation in different castes of two polyandrous species of Acromyrmex leaf-cutting ant for the antibiotic-producing metapleural gland, which has a major role in defence against parasites. Gland size increases allometrically. The small workers that play the main role in disease defence have relatively large glands compared with larger workers, while the glands of gynes are substantially larger than those of any workers, for their body size. The gland size of large workers varies significantly between patrilines in both Acromyrmex echinatior and Acromyrmex octospinosus. We also examined small workers and gynes in A. echinatior, again finding genetic variation in gland size in these castes. There were significant positive relationships between the gland sizes of patrilines in the different castes, indicating that the genetic mechanism underpinning the patriline variation has remained similar across phenotypes. The level of expressed genetic variation decreased from small workers to large workers to gynes. This is consistent with the hypothesis that there is individual selection on disease defence in founding queens and colony-level selection on disease defence in the worker castes.
Original languageEnglish
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society of London. Biological Sciences
Issue number1681
Pages (from-to)609-15
Number of pages6
Publication statusPublished - 2010

ID: 18584067