National Geographic

On the Origin of Ants–From Wasps

Growing up on a small farm, I was able to get to know the insects that lived on the property pretty well. Some I liked, and some I hated. I hated the mud dauber wasps that built organ-pipe shaped cavities for their eggs on the side of our chicken coop and always seemed poised to sting me. On the other hand, I became fond of ants; they hypnotized me with their affable industry, hauling food back to their nests or moving larvae to a new home.

In my “Matter” column today for the New York Times, I take a look at a new study that has produced an evolutionary tree of ants and their relatives. I was surprised to find that those mud dauber wasps look to be closely related to ants. In fact, the authors of the study argue, ants started out as a similar kind of predatory wasp. And in those waspish origins may lay the roots of the remarkably complex societies of ants. Check it out.

Mud dauber wasp. Photo by Jaxo S via Creative Commons: http://flic.kr/p/9SHhE9

Mud dauber wasp. Photo by Jaxo S via Creative Commons: http://flic.kr/p/9SHhE9

There are 6 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Joel
    October 17, 2013

    One comment, one question

    This suggests a possible simple and elegant explanation for the emergence of altruistic helpers. A daughter born with the “collect food for the young” instinct (gene(s)) but without the “wander and reproduce” instinct (gene(s)). Or I guess more accurately, a daughter born with a mutation that her own daughters exhibit this behavior; and the instinct isn’t missing, but inhibited, allowing for the ability to “turn on” the “wander and reproduce” instinct for potential queens.

    Question – what in the world filled the ant ecological niches 100m years ago? Pollination, consumption of live and dead vegetation, predation, and food source for other predators. It’s difficult to imagine a biosphere without ants, but clearly it worked fine without them in the past.

  2. Steviepinhead
    October 17, 2013

    Another well-done write-up, Carl. While I understand why it might not have been appropriate to include them in the NYT piece, a link or cite to the actual research article and maybe an image of any phylogenetic figure from that article might have been nice additions to your post here.

  3. David Bump
    October 17, 2013

    Fascinating. I’d like to see what fossil representatives are known, and what other traces might be known from the fossil record (preserved ant colonies? spider middens showing various bits? fossilized wasp nests?). I wonder if this is the only case of such a major group of animals having descended from flying ancestors, rather than the other way around.

  4. David Bump
    October 17, 2013

    Fascinating. I’d like to see what fossil representatives are known, and what other traces might be known from the fossil record (preserved ant colonies? spider middens showing various bits? fossilized wasp nests?). I wonder if this is the only case of such a major group of non-flying animals having descended from flying ancestors, rather than the other way around.

  5. Rio Pratama Martin
    October 21, 2013

    I think Dr.Carlz was right about ant origins begin with a wasp.You know there’s a lot of wasp in our school.You know there always making a nest almost everyday in our school

  6. Quibbler
    October 22, 2013

    Just have to be a stickler and point out that the ‘mud-dauber’ pictured here is actually a vespid (which are shown in the new phylogeny to be sister to the non-chrysidoid aculeate) and not a sphecid, or one of the apoid wasps sister to the ants. That old problem with common names and similar behavior, eh?

    [CZ: Dang. Misled by a Flickr caption. I have to say that it's hard to find a nice Creative Commons picture of a sphecid wasp.]

Add Your Comments

All fields required.

Related Posts