Body size variation and caste ratios in geographically distinct populations of the invasive big-headed ant, Pheidole megacephala (Hymenoptera: Formicidae)

Bill D. Wills, Corrie S. Moreau, Brian D. Wray, Benjamin D. Hoffmann, Andrew V. Suarez

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Body size is an important life history trait that can evolve rapidly as a result of how species interact with each other and their environment. Invasive species often encounter vastly different ecological conditions throughout their introduced range that can influence relative investment in growth, reproduction and defence among populations. In this study, we quantified variation in worker size, morphology and proportion of majors among five populations of a worldwide invasive species, the big-headed ant, Pheidole megacephala (Fabricius). The sampled populations differed in ant community composition, allowing us to examine if P. megacephala invests differently in the size and number of majors based on the local ant fauna. We also used genetic data to determine if these populations of P. megacephala represented cryptic species or if morphological differences could be attributed to change following introduction. We found significant variation in worker mass among the populations. Both major and minor workers were largest in Australia, where the ant fauna was most diverse, and minor workers were smallest in Hawaii and Mauritius, where P. megacephala interacted with few to no other ants. We also found differences in major and minor worker morphology among populations. Majors from Mauritius had significantly larger heads (width and length) relative to whole body size than those from Hawaii and Florida. Minors had longer heads and hind tibias in South Africa compared with populations from Australia, Hawaii and Florida. The proportion of majors did not differ among populations, suggesting that these populations may not be subject to trade-offs in investment in major size versus number. Our molecular data place all samples within the same clade, supporting that these morphologically different populations represent the same species. These results suggest that the variation in shape and morphology of major and minor workers may therefore be the result of rapid adaptation or plastic responses to local conditions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)423-438
Number of pages16
JournalBiological Journal of the Linnean Society
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 1 2014


  • Competition
  • Induced defences
  • Invasion biology
  • Life history
  • Plasticity
  • Trade-offs

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics

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