The theory of inclusive fitness provides a powerful explanation for reproductive altruism in social insects, whereby workers gain inclusive fitness benefit by rearing the brood of related queens. Some ant species, however, have unicolonial population structures where multiple nests, each containing numerous queens, are interconnected and individuals move freely between nests. In such cases, nestmate relatedness values may often be indistinguishable from zero, which is problematic for inclusive fitness-based explanations of reproductive altruism. We conducted a detailed population genetic study in the polygynous ant Formica exsecta, which has been suggested to form unicolonial populations in its native habitat. Analyses based on adult workers indeed confirmed a genetic structuring consistent with a unicolonial population structure. However, at the population level the genetic structuring inferred from worker pupae was not consistent with a unicolonial population structure, but rather suggested a multicolonial population structure of extended family-based nests. These contrasting patterns suggest limited queen dispersal and free adult worker dispersal. That workers indeed disperse as adults was confirmed by mark-recapture measures showing consistent worker movement between nests. Together, these findings describe a new form of social organization, which possibly also characterizes other ant species forming unicolonial populations in their native habitats. Moreover, the genetic analyses also revealed that while worker nestmate relatedness was indistinguishable from zero at a small geographical scale, it was significantly positive at the population level. This highlights the need to consider the relevant geographical scale when investigating the role of inclusive fitness as a selective force maintaining reproductive altruism.
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