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  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: June 2016

3 - Population genetics of wood ants


Discussions of queen dispersal and adoption of new queens by own versus alien colonies in Formica rufa played an important role in the early theoretical studies of social evolution (Sturtevant 1938; Williams and Williams 1957). This was inspired by polygyny affecting the genetic relationships among nestmates, which are estimated today by use of genetic markers (Box 3.1). Demography and population dynamics also shape the whole genetic landscape of ant populations, and genetic studies can be used to trace such events. Finally, even long-term processes leave their genetic signatures, and the genome-wide variation patterns support the hypothesis that ants tend to have small effective population sizes and increased genetic loads, resembling vertebrates more than other invertebrates in this respect (Romiguier et al. 2014). Even though this conclusion is general and based only on very few species, it emphasises biological characteristics important for ant populations also in the context of conservation.

Molecular markers

Genetic markers are used to estimate the level and distribution of genetic variation in populations and societies. Optimal genetic markers are: (1) not influenced by environment or developmental stages, (2) randomly distributed across the genome, (3) codominant and (4) selectively neutral, but none of the markers in use fulfil all these requirements (Lowe et al. 2004). Genetic markers are used to resolve phylogenetic relationships at different hierarchical levels: among species, among conspecific populations at large geographic scales, among potentially interconnected conspecific populations and among individuals (Avise 2004). In social insects, studies at the first two levels are not different from other organisms: spatial distribution of genetic variability is first assessed and then interpreted based on geological and climatological history. On the other hand, analyses of colony kin structure and spatial population structure are, at least to some extent, idiosyncratic to social insects and need a more detailed introduction (Box 3.2).

Marker types

In the 1960s, the first molecular polymorphisms employed as genetic markers were enzymes, widely used because of low costs and the ease of use. Allozyme polymorphism is based on the variation in the net charge of enzymes involved in basic metabolism. As only a small fraction of mutations (9%) lead to a change in the net charge of the amino acid chain, allozymes tend to be only weakly polymorphic.

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