Background: Reproductive division of labor is one of the key features of social insects. Queens are adapted for reproduction while workers are adapted for foraging and colony maintenance. In many species, however, workers retain functional ovaries and can lay unfertilized male eggs or trophic eggs. Here we report for the first time on the occurrence of physogastric workers and apparent worker reproduction in the invasive yellow crazy ant Anoplolepis gracilipes (Fr. Smith). We further examined the reproductive potential and nutritional role of physogastric workers through multidisciplinary approaches including morphological characterization, laboratory manipulation, genetic analysis and behavioral observation. Results: Egg production with two types of eggs, namely reproductive and trophic eggs, by physogastric workers was found. The reproductive egg was confirmed to be haploid and male-destined, suggesting that the workers produced males via arrhenotokous parthenogenesis as no spermatheca was discovered. Detailed observations suggested that larvae were mainly fed with trophic eggs. Along with consumption of trophic eggs by queens and other castes as part of their diet, the vital role of physogastric workers as "trophic specialist" is confirmed. Conclusion: We propose that adaptive advantages derived from worker reproduction for A. gracilipes may include 1) trophic eggs provisioned by physogastric workers likely assist colonies of A. gracilipes in overcoming unfavorable conditions such as paucity of food during critical founding stage; 2) worker-produced males are fertile and thus might offer an inclusive fitness advantage for the doomed orphaned colony.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
- Animal Science and Zoology