Evolution of novel mosaic castes in ants: Modularity, phenotypic plasticity, and colonial buffering

Mathieu Molet, Diana E. Wheeler, Christian Peeters

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

72 Scopus citations


Many ants have independently evolved castes with novel morphology as well as function, such as soldiers and permanently wingless (ergatoid) queens. We present a conceptual model, based on modularity in morphology and development, in which evolutionary innovation is facilitated by the ancestral ant polyphenism of winged queens and wingless workers. We suggest that novel castes evolved from rare intercastes, anomalous mosaics of winged queens and workers, erratically produced by colonies through environmental or genetic perturbations. The colonial environment is highly accommodating and buffers viable intercastes from individual selection. Their cost is limited because they are diluted by the large number of nestmates, yet some can bring disproportionate benefits to their colonies in the context of defense or reproduction (e.g., wingless intercastes able to mate). Useful intercastes will increase in frequency as their morphology is stabilized through genetic accommodation. We show that both soldiers and ergatoid queens are mosaics of winged queens and workers, and they are strikingly similar to some intercastes. Modularity and developmental plasticity together with winged/wingless polyphenism thus allow for the production of highly variable mosaic intercastes, and colonies incubate the advantageous mosaics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)328-341
Number of pages14
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2012
Externally publishedYes


  • Caste
  • Development
  • Ergatoid queen
  • Intercaste
  • Polyphenism
  • Soldier

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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