Reduction of brain volume correlates with behavioral changes in queen ants

Glennis E. Julian, Wulfila Gronenberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

68 Scopus citations


The behavior of reproductive female ants distinctly changes during the transition from virgin to mature, egg-laying queen. A winged female ant flies only once during her lifetime when she engages in the nuptial flight. Once she is mated she sheds her wings, excavates a nest and starts laying eggs, the basis for her future colony. We show for two species of harvester ants that this transition is accompanied by changes in the performance of behavioral tests: flying virgins are positively phototactic and prefer open areas, whereas young queens prefer the dark, avoid open areas and, given the opportunity, dig into the soil. These behavioral changes coincide with morphological changes in the brain. The brains of mature queens are significantly smaller than those of virgin females at the time of their mating flight. A disproportionately large shrinkage occurs in the medulla and other parts of the visual system during the early adult life of the queen. The brain reduction appears to be adaptive as mature queens show reduced behavioral repertoires and live in the dark. In contrast to virgin females, they do not rely on vision and might increase their fitness by reducing metabolically costly neural tissue.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)152-164
Number of pages13
JournalBrain, Behavior and Evolution
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2002


  • Ants
  • Behavior
  • Comparative morphology
  • Insects
  • Optic lobe
  • Plasticity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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