Science: Time to dissolve my brain!

Founding a new colony is not an easy task for an ant. In a lot of ant species, there is a mating flight, where males and virgin queens fly out of their colonies and mate with each other in the air. The male immediately dies after this, but the female has a pretty tough (and probably pretty boring) life in front of her.

After mating, the female lands on the ground and digs or finds a hole in order to start a new colony. It many species, the queen will lay eggs and take care of them, but never go out to find food anymore. She just lives off her fat reserves, feeding the larvae until the first workers are born and start bringing in food.

This means that if she does not have enough fat reserves, the first workers will never be born and the queen will die of starvation.

One way of ensuring no calorie will go to waste has been long known. After mating, the queen will land and shed her wings. She then ‘dissolves’ her wing muscles (as she won’t need those anymore) and reabsorb their energy. However, there are more things a queen doesn’t need anymore after mating.

Lasius nearticus. Two virgin queens (on the right) and one male (on the left) ready to depart on their mating flight. After mating, the queens will shed their wings and try to found a new colony.

Lasius nearticus. Two virgin queens (on the right) and one male (on the left) ready to depart on their mating flight. After mating, the queens will shed their wings and try to found a new colony. Picture by Alex Wild (www.alexanderwild.com)

During the mating flight, the soon-to-be-queen will need good eyesight, as flying blind might not be an entirely good idea. Afterwards however, she will be underground, laying eggs for up to thirty years. Needless to say, it’s pretty dark down there, so what use would there be for good eyesight?

Glennis Julian and Wulfila Gronenberg found something fascinating regarding this in 2002. Very soon after mating, the queen will actually start ‘dissolving’ parts of her brain, mainly those parts involved in vision. It costs a lot of energy to maintain a fully functional brain, so in this way, she can save valuable calories in order to raise her first batch of workers.

Conclusion: Ant queens ‘dissolve’ parts of their brain in order to save energy.

Source:
Julian, G.E. & Gronenberg, W. (2002). Reduction of brain volume correlates with behavioral changes in queen ants. Brain, Behavior and Evolution 60, 152-164

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5 Responses to Science: Time to dissolve my brain!

  1. Roberta says:

    Very interesting finding, although I’m not surprised because that colony founding period is so critical.

    There’s some research that shows that rat and human brains also change with childbirth.

  2. Roberta says:

    Welcome to the world of ant blogs, too. :-)

  3. antyscience says:

    Thanks! Yeah love this story. Was a bit sad about it too (a couple of years ago when I was in the 2nd year of my PhD), as I had exactly the same idea, so I was all enthusiastic about finally coming up with a question based on evolutionary theory…and then finding out it had been done :)

  4. hannele says:

    Cool – I did not know that! :)

    Is the only reason we keep saying “males and virgin queens” (instead of virgin males and queens) that we need to distinguish the young queens from established ones, and we don’t need to distinguish the males from later males, since they die? Somehow it feels like we could find a better word than “virgin”…

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