Intrinsic survival advantage of social insect queens depends on reproductive activation

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The central trade-off between reproduction and longevity dominates most species' life history. However, no mortality cost of reproduction is apparent in eusocial species, particularly social insects in the order Hymenoptera: one or a few individuals (typically referred to as queens) in a group specialize on reproduction and are generally longer lived than all other group members (typically referred to as workers), despite having the same genome. However, it is unclear whether this survival advantage is due to social facilitation by the group or an intrinsic, individual property. Furthermore, it is unknown whether the correlation between reproduction and longevity is due to a direct mechanistic link or an indirect consequence of the social role of the reproductives. To begin addressing these questions, we performed a comparison of queen and worker longevity in the ant Cardiocondyla obscurior under social isolation conditions. Survival of single queens and workers was compared under laboratory conditions, monitoring and controlling for brood production. Our results indicate that there is no intrinsic survival advantage of queens relative to workers unless individuals are becoming reproductively active. This interactive effect of caste and reproduction on life expectancy outside of the normal social context suggests that the positive correlation between reproduction and longevity in social insect queens is due to a direct link that can activate intrinsic survival mechanisms to ensure queen longevity.

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