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- The rise of the ants: A phylogenetic and ecological explanation

The rise of the ants: A phylogenetic and ecological explanation
Edward O. Wilson* and Bert Hölldobler§
*Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138-2902; School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287-4501; and
§Theodor-Boveri-Institut für Biowissenschaften (Biozentrum) der Universität, Am Hubland, D-97074 Würzburg, Germany
To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: ewilson@oeb.harvard.edu .
In the past two decades, studies of anatomy, behavior, and, most recently, DNA sequences have clarified the phylogeny of the ants at the subfamily and generic levels. In addition, a rich new harvest of Cretaceous and Paleogene fossils has helped to date the major evolutionary radiations. We collate this information and then add data from the natural history of the modern fauna to sketch a history of major ecological adaptations at the subfamily level. The key events appear to have been, first, a mid-Cretaceous initial radiation in forest ground litter and soil coincident with the rise of the angiosperms (flowering plants), then a Paleogene advance to ecological dominance in concert with that of the angiosperms in tropical forests, and, finally, an expansion of some of the lineages, aided by changes in diet away from dependence on predation, upward into the canopy, and outward into more xeric environments.
Keywords: ecology, evolution, phylogeny, sociobiology
Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2005 May 24; 102(21): 7411–7414. © 2005, The National Academy of Sciences.
Humanity lives in a world largely filled by prokaryotes, fungi, flowering plants, nematode worms, spiders, mites, and six ecological keystone insect groups: termites, hemipteran “true” bugs, phytophagan beetles, cyclorraphan flies, glossatan moths, and hymenopterans, the last comprising bees, wasps— and ants (1). Ants are especially notable among the insects for their ecological dominance as predators, scavengers, and indirect herbivores. Although the ≈11,000 species of the ant family (Formicidae) make up 2). In the Brazilian Amazon, as judged by one survey (3), the biomass of ants is approximately four times greater than that of all of the land vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians) combined.

The combination of advanced colonial life and worldwide environmental influence gives special significance to the evolutionary history of the ants. Recent phylogenetic analyses, when combined with data from a rich new harvest of Cretaceous and Paleogene fossils and the natural history of the modern fauna, permit a defensible reconstruction of the broad-scale ecological features of ant evolution.

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