[ExI] Attack of the (ant) clones

Emlyn emlynoregan at gmail.com
Fri May 1 08:15:33 UTC 2009

One for Spike, and food for genetic thought:

Rare All-Female Ant Society That Reproduces By Cloning Discovered

A group of Amazonian ants have evolved an extremely unusual social
system: They are all female and reproduce via cloning. Though their
sexual organs have virtually disappeared, they have also gained some
extraordinary abilities.

University of Arizona biologist Anna Himler orginally began studying
the ants, called Mycocepurus smithii, because they had incredible
success as farmers. Many breeds of ant keep domesticated “farms” where
they breed various kinds of fungus for nourishment. But Mycocepurus
smithii was able to breed fungus far more successfully, and in greater
varieties, than other ants Himler had encountered.

As she and her team studied the insects, they realized there were no
male ants anywhere to be found. Himler told the BBC that it’s possible
the ants evolved so as “not to operate under the usual constraints of
sexual reproduction.” Interestingly, the fungi that the ants cultivate
also reproduce asexually. But why would these ants choose to emulate
the reproductive cycle favored by their crops? Himler explains:
“It avoids the energetic cost of producing males, and doubles the
number of reproductive females produced each generation from 50% to
100% of the offspring.”

All the members of the colony are clones of the queen. While that
means the queen can control every aspect of the population, it also
makes the colony vulnerable to pandemics. A virus that can kill one
ant can kill all of them, since they all have the exact same immune
systems. On the other hand, it seems that a lack of men gave these
women more time and energy to cultivate some of the most elaborate
forms of ant agriculture ever studied.

According to Himler, ants often evolve highly unusual reproductive
strategies. But all-female ant societies are highly rare.


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