60-Second Science

Sly Male Ants Carry Queen Genes

A few male ants in a colony have genes that allow them to sire the next queen. But they keep their royal genetics under wraps. Cynthia Graber reports.

Podcast Transcript: Ants are known for working together, operating as a unit for the good of the colony. But not so fast, say researchers from the Universities of Leeds and Copenhagen. It turns out that ants can scheme like a stage mom.

Scientists say that some ants hide out to ensure that their offspring become child-bearing queens instead of barren workers. The accepted hypothesis had been that random ants were fed certain foods that would allow them to develop into queens. But DNA tests on five colonies of leaf-cutting ants revealed that certain males have a better genetic chance of producing royal progeny.

Scientists believe these rare males stay anonymous, and thus avoid any problems with other ants that might otherwise lose their “one-for-all, all-for-one” attitude.  In fact, the number of males carrying royal genes to those who aren’t may have settled at a low ratio through evolution—which cobbled together the best way for the ant gene pool to expand, while at the same time keeping the lucky males hidden from their possibly jealous rivals.

—Cynthia Graber

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