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Journal Articles Frontiers in Zoology Year : 2020

The loss of flight in ant workers enabled an evolutionary redesign of the thorax for ground labour


Background: Explanations for the ecological dominance of ants generally focus on the benefits of division of labour and cooperation during foraging. However, the principal innovation of ants relative to their wasp ancestors was the evolution of a new phenotype: a wingless worker caste optimized for ground labour. Ant workers are famous for their ability to lift and carry heavy loads, but we know surprisingly little about the morphological basis of their strength. Here we examine the consequences of the universal loss of flight in ant workers on skeletomuscular adaptations in the thorax for enhanced foraging on six legs. Results: Using X-ray microcomputed tomography and 3D segmentation, we compared winged queens and wingless workers in Euponera sikorae (subfamily Ponerinae) and Cataglyphis savignyi (subfamily Formicinae). Workers are characterized by five major changes to their thorax: i) fusion of the articulated flight thorax (queens) into a rigid box optimized to support the muscles that operate the head, legs and abdomen, ii) redesign of internal cuticular structures for better bracing and muscle attachment, iii) substantial enlargement of the neck muscles for suspending and moving the head, iv) lengthening of the external trochanter muscles, predominant for the leg actions that lift the body off the ground, v) modified angle of the petiole muscles that are key for flexion of the abdomen. We measured volumes and pennation angles for a few key muscles to assess their increased efficacy. Our comparisons of additional workers across five genera in subfamilies Dorylinae and Myrmicinae show these modifications in the wingless thorax to be consistent. In contrast, a mutillid wasp showed a different pattern of muscle adaptations resulting from the lack of wing muscles. Conclusions: Rather than simply a subtraction of costly flight muscles, we propose the ant worker thorax evolved into a power core underlying stronger mandibles, legs, and sting. This contrasts with solitary flightless insects where the lack of central place foraging generated distinct selective pressures for rearranging the thorax. Stronger emphasis is needed on morphological innovations of social insects to further our understanding of the evolution of social behaviours.
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Dates and versions

hal-02988164 , version 1 (04-11-2020)



Christian Peeters, Roberto A. Keller, Adam Khalife, Georg Fischer, Julian Katzke, et al.. The loss of flight in ant workers enabled an evolutionary redesign of the thorax for ground labour. Frontiers in Zoology, 2020, 17 (1), pp.33. ⟨10.1186/s12983-020-00375-9⟩. ⟨hal-02988164⟩
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