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Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 2011 May;86(2):475-91. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-185X.2010.00156.x. Epub 2010 Sep 14.

Geographic patterns in the distribution of social systems in terrestrial arthropods.

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Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia, 6270 University Boulevard, Vancouver, BC, Canada.


The role of ecology in the evolution and maintenance of arthropod sociality has received increasing research attention in recent years. In some organisms, such as halictine bees, polistine wasps, and social spiders, researchers are investigating the environmental factors that may contribute to high levels of variation in the degree of sociality exhibited both among and within species. Within lineages that include only eusocial members, such as ants and termites, studies focus more on identifying extrinsic factors that may contribute to the dramatic variation in colony size, number of queens, and division of labour that is evident across these species. In this review, I propose a comparative approach that seeks to identify environmental factors that may have a common influence across such divergent social arthropod groups. I suggest that seeking common biogeographic patterns in the distribution of social systems or key social traits may help us to identify ecological factors that play a common role in shaping the evolution of sociality across different organisms. I first review previous studies of social gradients that form along latitudinal and altitudinal axes. Within families and within species, many organisms show an increasing degree of sociality at lower latitudes and altitudes. In a smaller number of cases, organisms form larger groups or found nests cooperatively at higher latitudes and altitudes. I then describe several environmental factors that vary consistently along such gradients, including climate variables and abundance of predators, and outline their proposed role in the social systems of terrestrial arthropods. Finally, I map distributions of a social trait against several climatic factors in five case studies to demonstrate how future comparative studies could inform empirical research.

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