Neuroecology of social organization in the Australasian weaver ant, Oecophylla smaragdina
Kamhi, Jessica Frances
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The social brain hypothesis predicts that larger group size and greater social complexity select for increased brain size. In ants, social complexity is associated with large colony size, emergent collective action, and division of labor among workers. The great diversity of social organization in ants offers numerous systems to test social brain theory and examine the neurobiology of social behavior. My studies focused on the Australasian weaver ant, Oecophylla smaragdina, a polymorphic species, as a model of advanced social organization. I critically analyzed how biogenic amines modulate social behavior in ants and examined their role in worker subcaste-related territorial aggression. Major workers that naturally engage in territorial defense showed higher levels of brain octopamine in comparison to more docile, smaller minor workers, whose social role is nursing. Through pharmacological manipulations of octopaminergic action in both subcastes, octopamine was found to be both necessary and sufficient for aggression, suggesting subcaste-related task specialization results from neuromodulation. Additionally, I tested social brain theory by contrasting the neurobiological correlates of social organization in a phylogenetically closely related ant species, Formica subsericea, which is more basic in social structure. Specifically, I compared brain neuroanatomy and neurometabolism in respect to the neuroecology and degree of social complexity of O. smaragdina major and minor workers and F. subsericea monomorphic workers. Increased brain production costs were found in both O. smaragdina subcastes, and the collective action of O. smaragdina majors appeared to compensate for these elevated costs through decreased ATP usage, measured from cytochrome oxidase activity, an endogenous marker of neurometabolism. Macroscopic and cellular neuroanatomical analyses of brain development showed that higher-order sensory processing regions in workers of O. smaragdina, but not F. subsericea, had age-related synaptic reorganization and increased volume. Supporting the social brain hypothesis, ecological and social challenges associated with large colony size were found to contribute to increased brain size. I conclude that division of labor and collective action, among other components of social complexity, may drive the evolution of brain structure and function in compensatory ways by generating anatomically and metabolically plastic mosaic brains that adaptively reflect cognitive demands of worker task specialization and colony-level social organization.