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Open Access Research article

A molecular phylogeny of Dorylus army ants provides evidence for multiple evolutionary transitions in foraging niche

Daniel JC Kronauer1*, Caspar Schöning1, Lars B Vilhelmsen2 and Jacobus J Boomsma1

Author Affiliations

1 Institute of Biology, Department of Population Biology, University of Copenhagen, Universitetsparken 15, 2100 Copenhagen, Denmark

2 Zoological Museum, University of Copenhagen, Universitetsparken 15, 2100 Copenhagen, Denmark

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2007, 7:56  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-7-56

Published: 4 April 2007

Abstract

Background

Army ants are the prime arthropod predators in tropical forests, with huge colonies and an evolutionary derived nomadic life style. Five of the six recognized subgenera of Old World Dorylus army ants forage in the soil, whereas some species of the sixth subgenus (Anomma) forage in the leaf-litter and some as conspicuous swarm raiders on the forest floor and in the lower vegetation (the infamous driver ants). Here we use a combination of nuclear and mitochondrial DNA sequences to reconstruct the phylogeny of the Dorylus s.l. army ants and to infer the evolutionary transitions in foraging niche and associated morphological adaptations.

Results

Underground foraging is basal and gave rise to leaf-litter foraging. Leaf-litter foraging in turn gave rise to two derived conditions: true surface foraging (the driver ants) and a reversal to subterranean foraging (a clade with most of the extant Dorylus s.s. species). This means that neither the subgenus Anomma nor Dorylus s.s. is monophyletic, and that one of the Dorylus s.s. lineages adopted subterranean foraging secondarily. We show that this latter group evolved a series of morphological adaptations to underground foraging that are remarkably convergent to the basal state.

Conclusion

The evolutionary transitions in foraging niche were more complex than previously thought, but our comparative analysis of worker morphology lends strong support to the contention that particular foraging niches have selected for very specific worker morphologies. The surprising reversal to underground foraging is therefore a striking example of convergent morphological evolution.