Gender is in the mother’s genes –

(Image: Alan Brelsford / UCR)

What determines the sex of a queen ant’s offspring? In the case of the species of wood ant shown here, scientists have clarified at least part of this question through genetic analyzes

Gender-segregated colonies in ants have been known for a long time. Male ants emerge from unfertilized eggs and female ants from fertilized eggs. The queen therefore decides on the sex of the individual animals. But what criteria are used to select the sex of the whole brood and who is involved? Previous findings are that, in addition to environmental influences, the workers who feed the offspring also participate and selectively starve or even actively kill larvae.

Researchers at the University of California at Riverside have now examined two species of wood ants in Canada to determine whether and how the queen determines the sex of her offspring. They were able to show that this division is also determined genetically. They identified two neighboring supergenes that are closely linked to the gender distribution.

The team will continue researching these questions and would like to find out whether environmental factors or genes play a greater role in the sex of the offspring. The results are also important for the conservation of the species: the division of male and female colonies could also be confused by climate change and the resulting changes in environmental influences.

“Ants are one of the most abundant insects in ecosystems,” says Jessica Purcell, co-author of the study. “Gardeners love earthworms, but ants make a similar contribution to soil health.”

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