05.03.2015

Collective vs. individual interest in social insects

The evolution of sociality and particularly the existence of non-reproductive caste in which workers sacrifice own Truncorum workerreproduction to help others, have long fascinated evolutionary biologists. However harmonious the life in a social insect colony may appear on the outside, fitness interests of individuals cooperating for colony’s common good often diverge. We study the evolution of social traits governed by selection regimes that promote cooperation on the one hand, and create conflicts among group members on the other. The main questions of our research are: How is social cohesion maintained in the face of the tragedy of the commons, and how this is re­flected in interactions at all levels of organization (genes, individuals and societies)? How do individuals maxim­ize their personal fitness against the requirements of the society? Using genetic and chemical analyses and behavioural bioassays, we investigate how genetic mechanisms, seasonal dynamics, and recognition abilities of individuals mediate the kinship effects on coopera­tion and conflict in these societies. In collaboration with Patrizia D’Ettorre, Paris 13, we want to get more insight on the role of information, power and opportunity for selfish behaviours of group members. The main study species is the ant Formica fusca, but also other Formica species are used in comparative approaches. More recently, comparative transcriptomics methods allowed us to investigate how social pheno­types such as queen-worker differentiation evolve in general, and how social variation affects the function­ing of natural selection on social traits.

The key questions are:

  • To what extent can worker ants realise their personal fitness incentives, given the limitations that incomplete information and lack of opportunity impose?
  • What and who determines the outcome of reproductive competition among queens in multi-queen societies?
  • Whether low relatedness societies are disproportionately exposed to mutation accumulation, and what role does caste specific gene expression play in this
  • Whether low relatedness exposes societies to costly conflict behaviour and tragedies of the commons in contexts such as larval cannibalism or queen dispersal
  • What are the negative effects of low relatedness on insect societies

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