CAREER: Exploring the patterns and mechanisms of ant social parasite speciation and evolution: integrating teaching and research to foster biodiversity discovery in organismal evolutionary biology

Project: Research project

Project Details


The project aims at unraveling the complex evolutionary history of ant social parasites and their hosts, and seeks to understand the influence that convergently evolved behavioral changes have on the speciation patterns and mechanisms generating social parasite diversity. The project utilizes an integrative approach, that includes (i) reconstructing the speciation patterns and the evolutionary history of social parasite diversification across at least 170 host-parasite pairs from 20 ant genera, based on phylogenomic data from Ultra-Conserved Elements (UCEs), utilizing proven ant-specific probes; (ii) unearthing the global biodiversity of ant social parasites by using an integrative approach to biodiversity discovery and social parasite taxonomy, effectively delimiting species and revising ant social parasites across the ant tree of life, utilizing field collected and NEON samples; (iii) deciphering the genetic mechanisms underlying social parasite speciation and evolution, testing whether consistent modifications to the genome architecture are associated with social parasite evolution and whether similar genetic elements are consistently gained, maintained, or lost during social parasite evolution. In summary, this project uses an integrative approach to organismal evolutionary biology, exploring how socially parasitic lineages originate repeatedly and convergently from their eusocial ancestors in close sympatry.
Intellectual Merit
Understanding the origin of biological diversity is a major goal in evolutionary biology. Allopatric speciation is generally accepted, and theoretical and empirical studies established that reproductive isolation can evolve in sympatry under special circumstances. Current research focusses on deciphering the proximate ecological and genetic mechanisms underlying speciation. Evidence for sympatric speciation has accumulated from studies of ant inquiline social parasites. In contrast to other species that evolved via sympatric speciation due to unique ecological conditions, ant social parasites are a promising and underutilized system for comparative study. The high diversity of independently evolved species (i.e., 390 species in 34 genera) allows for studying the convergent evolution of speciation mechanisms and evolutionary patterns. The proposed research addresses a central question in speciation research: How do organisms become reproductively isolated while living in close proximity and being potentially able to interbreed? We developed a novel hypothesis that could provide a generalizable proximate model for how socially parasitic lineages originate repeatedly from their eusocial ancestors in sympatry across ants. This study will integrate state-of-the-art morphological and taxonomic as well as contribute to further developing phylogenomic and comparative genomics methods.
Broader Impacts
This proposal integrates research, education, and outreach, which will benefit society directly. The speciation research contributes to the better understanding of a unique and little explored speciation mechanism, in which a switch from eusocial to parasitic behavior leads to reproductive isolation, informing the broader fields of evolutionary biology, ecology, and behavioral ecology. The proposed taxonomic studies of ant social parasites will enable the identification by the growing numbers of organismal biologists and will directly contribute to curation and identification of NSF NEON housed at ASU. Graduate and undergraduate students will be trained in organismal evolutionary biology in both the laboratory and the field, and a novel field course for undergraduate students is proposed. Longstanding collaborations with colleagues in South America and Europe will facilitate the international exchange of students and long-term enhancement of a global scientific community. A novel outreach program at ASU will (i) train teachers at elementary, middle, and high schools with high percentages of under-represented and disadvantaged groups in the Phoenix Metro area; (ii) integrate Mesa Community Colleague students into teaching and research activities at ASU, (iii) use social parasites as a tool to start a conversation about racially loaded metaphors in science, (iv) offer a PhD student/postdoc workshop to integrate social and brood parasitism research across vertebrate and invertebrates (and potentially beyond), (v) provide continued mentorship and training for students, (vi) provide resources to the scientific community. Voucher specimens will be deposited in the countries of origin as well as in National insect collections. DNA vouchers will be deposited in the ASU Biorepository. Photographs, natural history and collection information, and keys will be made available on the Rabeling lab web site, AntWeb, and iDigBio.
Effective start/end date1/15/2012/31/24


  • National Science Foundation (NSF): $991,826.00

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