Ant genomics may reshape biological history of the Americas

Ant genomics
Workers of the Neotropical army ant species Eciton burchellii cooperate to build a living bridge constructed of their own bodies.

Scientists have long believed that the Isthmus of Panama emerged from the ocean three million years ago, triggering a massive interchange of species between the Americas in its wake.

However, recent conflict in both geological and biological findings suggests that this simple story is insufficient to explain the available evidence.

In a new study, published in the journal of Molecular Ecology, Field Museum scientists explored questions fundamental to this interchange using novel genomic methods in army ants.

They found that land bridges likely connected the Americas millions of years earlier than previously thought.

Recent advances in technology allow scientists to apply genomic methods across the tree of life, rapidly increasing the pace of scientific discovery.

Without these tools, it is not impossible to recover the striking pattern of repeated speciation on the isthmus.

The work implies that early land connections were used to colonize Central America, but it also highlights the large role of the isthmus in generating biodiversity.

But with so many organisms to choose from, why were army ants selected for this study? It turns out their biology makes them ideal for asking questions about land-based dispersal.

For example, despite their presence throughout the tropics, they are completely absent from all the true Caribbean islands.

Although this may seem unexpected, the answer lies in their wingless queens, which restrict them to exclusively colonize new territory by land.

This was an important fact that enabled this study to rule out aerial and aquatic dispersal when army ant species colonized Central America millions of years ago.

Researchers said that they were able to leverage the unique biology of the organisms to address a question about the history of Earth that’s been around for decades.

Army ants are top predators with huge colonies of individuals that collectively hunt, kill, and transport their prey. Dispersing through the environment is a lot harder when they have to do it en masse.

The emergence of Panama is arguably one of the most significant events in the recent geological history of the Americas.

Not only does this research inform people about army ant evolution, it is also a significant step forward in helping biologists understand how geological events shaped the biodiversity we can see today.

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Citation: Winston ME, et al. (2016). Early and dynamic colonization of Central America drives speciation in Neotropical army ants. Molecular Ecology MEC-16-0655.R2. DOI: 10.1111/mec.13846.
Figure legend: This image is credited to Alex Wild.