Diversity and evolution of reproductive systems in Mycocepurus fungus-growing ants
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The general prevalence of sexual reproduction over asexual reproduction among metazoans testifies to the evolutionary, long-term benefits of genetic recombination. Despite the benefits of genetic recombination under sexual reproduction, asexual organisms sporadically occur throughout the tree of life, and a few asexual lineages persisted over significant evolutionary time without apparent recombination. The study of asexual organisms therefore may provide clues to answer why almost all eukaryotes reproduce via meiosis and syngamy and why asexual eukaryotes are almost always evolutionarily short-lived. Towards understanding the evolution of asexual lineages in the Hymenoptera, I first review the diversity of reproductive systems in the Hymenoptera, introduce the study organism, the fungus-gardening ant Mycocepurus smithii, and discuss my research objectives. Second, I integrate information from reproductive physiology, reproductive morphology, natural history and behavior, to document that that queens of M. smithii are capable of thelytokous parthenogenesis, workers are sterile, and males are absent from the surveyed population. These results suggest that M. smithii might be obligately asexual. To place the origin and maintenance of asexual reproduction in M. smithii in an evolutionary context, I use molecular phylogenetic and population-genetic methods to (i) test if M. smithii reproduces asexually throughout its distribution range; (ii) infer if asexuality evolved once or multiple times; (iii) date the origin of asexual reproduction in M. smithii; and (iv) elucidate the cytogenetic mechanism of thelytokous parthenogenesis. During field collecting for these studies throughout the Neotropics, I discovered a new species of obligate social parasite in the genus Mycocepurus. Social parasites are of great interest to evolutionary biology in order to elucidate mechanisms demonstrating how parasites gained reproductive isolation from their host species in sympatry. I describe this new parasite species, characterize its morphological and behavioral adaptations to the parasitic lifestyle, and discuss the parasite’s life history evolution in the context of social parasitism in fungus-growing ants. The dissertation research integrates population-genetic, phylogenetic, physiological and morphological approaches to advance our understanding of the evolution of reproductive systems and diversity of life-history traits in animals.