Mixed colonies and hybridisation of Messor harvester ant species (Hymenoptera: Formicidae)

Steiner F.M., Seifert B., Grasso D.A., Le Moli F., Arthofer W., Stauffer C., Crozier R.H. and Steiner B.C.

The Mediterranean harvester ant species Messor minor, M. cf. wasmanni, and M. capitatus can co-occur in the same habitat. In Italian populations, we encountered colonies that contained workers from more than one species as identified via standard morphology, as well as colonies with workers that appeared to be morphologically intermediate between species. This unusual finding required further analysis. We analysed such colonies using microsatellites, mitochondrial DNA and refined morphometrics, and a simple inference key for the colony-level interpretation of data from the three sources combined. We infer that Messor minor and M. cf. wasmanni engage in bidirectional interspecific gene flow. Hybrids between these two species are inferred to produce fertile offspring, which would indicate that barriers to hybridisation do not exist or can be completely overcome. This is unexpected, given that they are non-sister species and broadly sympatric in nature. Our findings also indicate the possible occurrence of hybrid-hybrid crosses, a phenomenon rarely observed in ants. We cautiously interpret the data at hand as in support of the interspecific gene flow considerably shaping the genetic makeup of populations, raising the question about a potential adaptive value of this hybridisation. Messor capitatus mixes with hybrids of the other two species, but we found no indication of hybridisation involving this species. We discuss various hypotheses on the causations of colony mixing and hybridisation in the three Messor species at the proximate and ultimate level.

Organisms Diversity & Evolution 11, 107-134.

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