Scientists have found the final missing link answering a long-standing question about how social behaviour evolves. New research shows that a social supergene in fire ants coordinates a host of biological processes and behaviours, that ultimately determine how sociable their colonies are, and who they choose to be their queen.
Social insects show extraordinarily high levels of cooperation, giving up their reproductive opportunities and even sacrificing their own lives to save the colony. The social insect colony is a well-oiled machine, each part has its own key role to play, together forming an intelligent and adaptive society. Most people are familiar with the highly advanced social insects, such as honeybees and leaf cutter ants. Their societies are huge and intricate, and we have gained many fascinating insights from them. However, they tell us very little about how these societies evolved, or what it meant to be cooperative in a more primitive sense.
Social behaviour in animals is not uncommon, and we are rarely surprised to observe cooperation in nature. However, most explanations for cooperative behaviour rely upon a certain level of cognitive ability. Cooperating willy-nilly leaves individuals open to cheaters, so successful and long-term cooperation between individuals often relies upon individual recognition. Many social groups are composed of relatives. This makes a lot of sense, as helping relatives yields benefits without the need for reciprocation in the future, because relatives share genes. But still, you might expect that even this requires basic intelligence – you need to be able to recognise who are your relatives.