Social Evolution Research group

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Research group description

The principles of social evolution – the balance of cooperation and conflict, the need to communicate and coordinate – apply across domains of life. Most of our studies focus on evolution, behaviour and genetics of ants, especially the genus Formica, but we also investigate broad patterns in social evolution across taxa. In order to gain a broad view of patterns and processes of social evolution, we employ a wide range of methods: experiments, genetics, chemical analyses as well as comparative and theoretical methods.

Our projects include:
1) Dispersal, queen number regulation and social structures in Formica ants: whether young queens disperse from their natal nests or stay at home is a key trait in ant ecology. On the one hand, it determines the ability of a species to colonize new habitats. On the other, it determines the number of queens in each nest, and is this an interesting social trait and a source of conflict between nestmates. We study the causes and consequences of dispersal behaviours in Formica ants with experimental, genetic, theoretical and chemical methods.

2) Self-medication in ants: social insects such as ants live in tight groups of genetically similar individuals, and are thus at increased risk from pathogens. We use experiments and physiological methods to study how ants such as Formica fusca are able to cope with pathogen pressure through dietary changes and how infections in general affect ant behaviour and ecology.

3) Comparative analyses of social evolution: phylogenetic comparative analyses and meta-analyses are a powerful way to synthesize knowledge from across studies and taxa and to reveal broad evolutionary patterns. We use such analyses to understand e.g. social insect life histories and ecological drivers of cooperation.

PI: Prof. Heikki Helanterä

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