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Genetic Factors Associated with Variation in Abundance of the Invasive Yellow Crazy Ant (Anoplolepis gracilipes)

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posted on 2021-11-12, 12:32 authored by Gruber, Monica Alexandra Maria

A key component of successful invasion is the ability of an introduced population to reach sufficient abundance to persist, spread, and alter or dominate the recipient biological community. Genetic diversity is one of many factors that may contribute to population dynamics, but has important ramifications for biological fitness, and thus invasion success in the long term. I explored genetic factors associated with variation in abundance (i.e., differential invasion success) of the yellow crazy ant Anoplolepis gracilipes in the Indo-Pacific region, primarily focussing on Arnhem Land in Australia's Northern Territory. I explored five aspects that I hypothesised could contribute to variation in the abundance of this ant: 1) I investigated the unusual reproductive mode of A. gracilipes, and tested whether it involved dependent-lineage genetic caste determination (DL GCD) in Arnhem Land. In DL GCD systems populations require hybridisation between genetically distinct groups to produce both reproductive and worker castes. Asymmetry in the ratio of different lineages may result in low abundance and population collapse. I found no evidence for a DL GCD system in A. gracilipes, and thus its abundance in Arnhem Land does not appear to be constrained by any lineage ratio asymmetry. Worker reproduction (either of males or asexual production of other workers) also appeared unlikely. The reproductive mode of the species remains fascinating but enigmatic; 2) I explored whether multiple source populations were responsible for the observed variation in abundance in Arnhem Land (i.e., is abundance associated with propagule pressure, or populations from different sources), and if the population has diverged since introduction. The A. gracilipes population in Arnhem Land stemmed from a single source, and thus propagule pressure was apparently not responsible for variation in abundance. In contrast to many invasive ants, population divergence has occurred since introduction; 3) I tested the hypotheses that genetic variation was associated with variation in abundance in Arnhem Land, and that ecological success was density-dependent. While the population divergence found in Chapter 3 was not related to variation in abundance, genotypic diversity was higher in more abundant nest clusters. These more abundant nest clusters were in turn associated with lower native ant species diversity, and a difference in composition of the invaded ant community (i.e., greater ecological success); 4) I revisited the invasion of the yellow crazy ant in Tokelau to determine whether a haplotype that was linked to greater abundance and dominance of the ant community has increased in distribution. Although ants of the inferred dominant haplotype were implicated in most new invasions, their abundance was substantially lower than previously observed in Tokelau; 5) I conducted a preliminary analysis of the metagenomic diversity of A. gracilipes endogenous parasites and symbionts among populations from Christmas Island, Okinawa, Samoa and Arnhem Land. Bacterial community composition and diversity differed between the study populations. Variation in abundance among A. gracilipes populations in Arnhem Land was not due to parasite load on populations with low abundance. However, low abundance of A. gracilipes was correlated with lower microbial diversity overall, and higher prevalence of some groups, notably two that confer antibiotic properties. Together, my findings suggest that propagule pressure, reproductive mode and haplotype-specific effects do not appear to be associated with variation in A. gracilipes abundance. Other genetic factors I investigated do appear to be associated with the variation in A. gracilipes abundance and effects on the invaded ant communities. Genotypic diversity was positively related to the abundance of A. gracilipes in Arnhem Land, and this relationship may be affected by population divergence through population bottlenecks. In addition, differences in bacterial diversity among populations highlighted several candidate bacteria that could be associated with variation in abundance, which would be a topic of future work. Although genetic factors are often implicated in the successful establishment of invasive species, my thesis demonstrates that genetic factors may also be associated with post-establishment population dynamics.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Ecology and Biodiversity

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Biological Sciences


Lester, Phil; Ritchie, Peter; Hoffmann, Ben