Chris Blattman

Why would sterile worker insects ever evolve? Evidence from termite battles.

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How does natural selection produce insect “worker” and “soldier” offspring who never reproduce, find mates or start their own colonies?

Thorne’s recent research… puts forth a novel theory that it was more advantageous for early termite offspring to stay at home and help their parents than risk dangerous attempts at creating independent colonies away from the nest where they would be more susceptible to predators. The termite youngsters had the best opportunity to take over the reproductive throne when their parents were killed by neighbors.

“The incentive to remain home with their siblings and inherit their parents’ estate could provide a missing link to the evolution of sterility among social insects,” Thorne said.

Via NSF. How to test such a theory? Thorne and her colleagues stage large-scale termite battles.

One bit that blows my mind:

It also turns out that hundreds of king and queen founding pairs simultaneously colonize the same dead tree, giving the insects greater opportunity to meet and battle their neighbors. When kings and queens are killed, termites from the unrelated families join forces and cooperate in a larger, stronger group in which new reproductive termites can emerge from either or both colonies’ worker ranks.

Hat tip to Renee.