Ecological constraints on effective dispersal have been suggested to be a key factor influencing social evolution in animal societies as well as the shift from single queen colonies (monogyny) to multiple queen colonies (polygyny) in ants. However, little is known about the effective dispersal patterns of ant queens. Here we investigate the microgeographic genetic structure of mitochondrial haplotypes in polygynous populations of the ant Formica exsecta, both between pastures and among nests within pastures. An analysis of molecular variance revealed a very high genetic differentiation (ΦST = 0.72) between pastures, indicating that queens rarely disperse successfully between pastures, despite the fact that pastures were sometimes as close as 1 km. Most of the pastures contained only a single haplotype, and haplotypes were frequently distinct between nearby pastures and even between groups of nests within the same pasture. In the three pastures that contained several haplotypes, haplotypes were not randomly distributed, the genetic differentiation between nests being ΦST = 0.17, 0.52, and 0.69. This indicates that most queens are recruited within their parental colonies. However, a large proportion of nests contained more than one haplotype, demonstrating that colonies will sometimes accept foreign queens. The relatedness of mitochondrial genes among nestmates varied between 0.62 and 0.75 when relatedness was measured within each pasture and ranged between 0.72 and 1.0 when relatedness was assessed with all pastures as a reference population. Neighboring nests were more genetically similar than distant ones, and there was significant isolation by distance. This pattern may be due to new nests being formed by budding or by limited effective queen dispersal, probably on foot between neighboring nests. These results show that effective queen dispersal is extremely restricted even at a small geographical scale, a pattern consistent with the idea that ecological constraints are an important selective force leading to the evolution and maintenance of polygyny.
Corresponding Editor: D. Wheeler