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Curr Biol. 2003 Feb 4;13(3):219-23.

Stress grows wings: environmental induction of winged dispersal males in Cardiocondyla ants.

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Biology 1, University of Regensburg, Universitätsstrasse 31, D-93040 Regensburg, Germany.


Dispersal is advantageous, but, at the same time, it implies high costs and risks. Due to these counteracting selection pressures, many species evolved dispersal polymorphisms, which, in ants, are typically restricted to the female sex (queens). Male polymorphism is presently only known from a few genera, such as Cardiocondyla, in which winged dispersing males coexist with wingless fighter males that mate exclusively inside their maternal nests. We studied the developmental mechanisms underlying these alternative male morphs and found that, first, male dimorphism is not genetically determined, but is induced by environmental conditions (decreasing temperature and density). Second, male morph is not yet fixed at the egg stage, but it differentiates during larval development. This flexible developmental pattern of male morphs allows Cardiocondyla ant colonies to react quickly to changes in their environment. Under good conditions, they invest exclusively in philopatric wingless males. But, when environmental conditions turn bad, colonies start to produce winged dispersal males, even though these males require a many times higher investment by the colony than their much smaller wingless counterparts. Cardiocondyla ants share this potential of optimal resource allocation with other colonial animals and some seed dimorphic plants.

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