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Open Access Research article

Genetic structure and breeding system in a social wasp and its social parasite

Eric A Hoffman12, Jennifer L Kovacs1 and Michael AD Goodisman1*

Author Affiliations

1 School of Biology, Georgia Institute of Technology, 310 Ferst Drive, Atlanta, GA 30332, USA

2 Department of Biology, University of Central Florida, 4000 Central Florida Blvd., Orlando, Florida 32816, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:239  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-239

Published: 20 August 2008

Abstract

Background

Social insects dominate ecological communities because of their sophisticated group behaviors. However, the intricate behaviors of social insects may be exploited by social parasites, which manipulate insect societies for their own benefit. Interactions between social parasites and their hosts lead to unusual coevolutionary dynamics that ultimately affect the breeding systems and population structures of both species. This study represents one of the first attempts to understand the population and colony genetic structure of a parasite and its host in a social wasp system.

Results

We used DNA microsatellite markers to investigate gene flow, genetic variation, and mating behavior of the facultative social parasite Vespula squamosa and its primary host, V. maculifrons. Our analyses of genetic variability uncovered that both species possessed similar amounts of genetic variation and failed to show genetic structure over the sampling area. Our analysis of mating system of V. maculifrons and V. squamosa revealed high levels of polyandry and no evidence for inbreeding in the two species. Moreover, we found no significant differences between estimates of worker relatedness in this study and a previous investigation conducted over two decades ago, suggesting that the selective pressures operating on queen mate number have remained constant. Finally, the distribution of queen mate number in both species deviated from simple expectations suggesting that mate number may be under stabilizing selection.

Conclusion

The general biology of V. squamosa has not changed substantially from that of a typical, nonparasitic Vespula wasp. For example, population sizes of the host and its parasite appear to be similar, in contrast to other social parasites, which often display lower population sizes than their hosts. In addition, parasitism has not caused the mating behavior of V. squamosa queens to deviate from the high levels of multiple mating that typify Vespula wasps. This stands in contrast to some socially parasitic ants, which revert to mating with few males. Overall, the general similarity of the genetic structure of V. maculifrons and V. squamosa presumably reflects the fact that V. squamosa is still capable of independent colony founding and thus reflects an intermediate stage in the evolution of social parasitism.