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Apr 15 2009

All-girl ant species sends shockwaves through ant community

Having undergone a BBC news feed relapse, I discover some South American ants who live in “a world without sex.” But the BBC exaggerates for comic effect, because of course the ants do not live in a world without sex. They live in a colony without males.

The article claims that these ants are the only species in the known universe to “reproduce entirely without sex.” This is also a comic exaggeration. The globe is rife with asexual species. But they don’t get a lot of press, since, unlike chimpanzees, the structure of asexual animal societies is not as easily interpreted by humans to reinforce patriarchal mores.

One parthenogenic species of lizard gets the nod, though, because although they are all female, they reassuringly have “fake sex” at egg-layin’ time. But I digress.

As a spinster aunt, I am one of the world’s preeminent comical antologists, but even to a layperson there can be no mystery as to why insects that are “physically incapable of mating” because “an essential part” of their bidness has “degenerated” are considered female.

46 comments

1 ping

  1. alphabitch

    I especially like this line: “There are advantages to life without sex, “Dr Himler explained. “It avoids the energetic cost of producing males [...]”

    Not to mention the energetic cost of having them around. Big plus: their (apparent) lack of existence makes it unnecessary to bother with any kind of oppressing or confining them. Win-win, in my book!

    On the other hand, I’m insanely formica-phobic and can’t bear to think too long about them.

    Ants, I mean, not countertops.

  2. Antoinette Niebieszczanski

    (Translating human behavior to the ants): My imagination conjures a fat, happy colony of peaceable spinster ants, eating joyously, drinking wine, doing the hairy-legged butt-dance in comfortable shoes and otherwise going about their antly business in freedom and contentment.

  3. Orange

    There is perhaps no living lizard more bad-ass than the Komodo dragon. While they mostly reproduce sexually, a few captive lady Komodos have laid fertilized eggs parthenogenetically. I saw with my own jaundiced eyes the wee offspring of one such Ms Komodo in the flesh at the Chester Zoo in England two years ago.

    You might say the parthenogenetic Komodos are livin’ the dream of maternal-minded lesbians and single women, except for the part about how adult Komodos tend to eat their young. Human mothers tend not to do that, though it would surely make dinner time easier on all accounts. One less mouth to feed, one less main dish to buy.

  4. Lizard

    I was unable to read the following from the lizard abstract:

    /Briefly, in separately housed pairs, one lizard was repeatedly seen to mount and ride its cagemate and appose the cloacal regions…the courted animal was reproductively active, having ovaries containing large, preovulatory follicles, while the courting animal was either reproductively inactive or postovulatory, having ovaries containing only small, undeveloped follicles./

    and not think “oh, lizards have butch and femme, too.” I realize this is unfair and biologically inaccurate anthropomorphizing.

    Also, sex is not a major behavior for most ants, anyway. Only the queens and drones engage in it. Male ants exist only for mating, and die shortly after.

  5. Whit

    The genetic sex determination of insects is wayyyyy more interesting and varied than mammals, and not having read the article, I can’t say what the mechanism is, and what other species share it. This is why I hate getting science-y news via the MSM, they always anthropomorphize, lie, and then leave out out any actual science-y bits.

  6. belenen

    Don’t you love how the tone of the article is the complete opposite of the tone of the actual researcher? The reporter uses words like ‘incapable’ and ‘degenerated’ and ‘unusually biased sex ratio’ whereas the researcher uses words like ‘evolved’ and ‘unusual mode of reproduction’ and points out the benefits of not mating! So are these ants evolved or degenerated? I suppose it depends on how important one considers pronging!

    and I like what you pointed out there at the end — if there is only one sex, shouldn’t it be considered neuter? But of course, no, because anything other than the-one-who-penetrates is female: the diseased, abnormal, inferior version of male.

  7. Jessica

    There is at least one species of aphid (Schizaphis graminum) that does most of its reproduction through parthenogenesis. I know this because I did research involving this particular species. Every single one of these critters that I encountered (and there were thousands) was female. I never saw a male.

    http://entnem.ufl.edu/creatures/field/bugs/greenbug.htm

    I think that this is not at all uncommon. In much of the insect world, males are superfluous and really only needed for genetic variation.

  8. undercover punk

    Wait a minute! If a gender-neutral species is described as NOT-male and *therefore* female, doesn’t this suggest that female is the DEFAULT gender? All this time I thought female (the Other) was defined in OPPOSITION to a male norm. Now I hear this…very confusing.

  9. B. Dagger Lee

    Maybe there’s some pharmaceutical product that blocks the obstreporal-rage receptors in brains that are addicted to BBC newsopiate feeds?

  10. B. Dagger Lee

    Because I need something, though the BBC newsfeed is not my vice.

  11. jc.

    What about the bane of the gardeners world, aphids? I´m not sure what the anti-patriarchy metaphor of their existence is but they are females who reproduce in what is known as “virgin” birth in such numbers that in a year they could suffocate the earth several miles deep with their numbers if it wasn´t for their numerous and voracious predators(ironically enough, among others, lady bugs). It´s only in the fall that they turn out some males and engage in inter-individual fertilising so as to spread and vary the genetic code before the winter death season.
    I also recall my hong kong(chinese?) snail which single handidly and emphatically succeeded in taking over my extremely large aquarium.
    Single sex reproduction, ho-hum, been there done that.

  12. Agasaya

    This was a stunning report which appears to lie from the get-go when this particular statement appeared:

    “By Victoria Gill – Science reporter, BBC News”

    The term, “Science Reporter” is an oxymoron in BBC reporting. Pardon me while I try to stop shivering.

    Discussions of asexual reproduction have been tossed around for many decades now but seemed more based in agriculture, which is fine if your goal is to produce a Mr. or Ms. Potato Head. For now, I prefer to do my reproducing this way:

    http://www.inmagine.com/iwf06008/iwf008044-photo

  13. Jonathan

    Anthropomorphizing was bad enough with chimps, but Patriarchal projection gets quite horrific when comes to insects.

    Bedbugs, for example, don’t do the whole PIV thing (not surprising, as invertebrate anatomy differs from vertebrates). Instead, female bedbugs have a cavity under their skin into which male bedbugs injects their sperm. The P defines bedbug reproduction as, “traumatic insemination”, attaches all kinds of horrible human analogies to their reproduction, and uses their frankensteinian conclusions to defend rape culture. When bedbug mating doesn’t reflect the viciousness that researchers attach to it, they act dumbfounded.

    Meanwhile, when female praying mantises literally bite the heads off of males during sex, the Dudes ponder the male’s “complicity” during “sexual cannibalism”, and either extol the male’s “sacrifice”, or dismiss the entire deal as evolutionarily irrelevant.

    The only question I’m left with is how these researchers and reporters manage to reproduce themselves. One would figure that a fondness for cruelty mixed with excessive dudebaggery would have a negative impact on their own continued procreation, yet these gasbags continue to skitter about generation after generation. IBTP for delaying their extinction.

  14. Jerry

    I’m betting that the “asexual fungus” will turn out to be the mutated progeny of the male ants. Which, for ants, is the more useful function, “dinner” or pronging?

  15. PhysioProf

    Mainstream “science journalism” is a raging fucking dumpster fire.

  16. gerda

    i know in honey bees the females are diploid and the males haploid, so a fertilised egg becomes a female and an unfertilised one becomes a male. oh, that doesnt help at all does it? insect reproduction is fascinating. and as has already been said here, scary to some in the p.

    earlies example i know;
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consider_Her_Ways
    woman transported to future where there are no men, just various types of happy women, goes bonkers with grief at the lack of ‘romantic love’ (despite being shown many varied examples of loving relationships, but of course without men it doesnt count). hmm. it didnt fool me age 15….

  17. Sutton

    @undercover punk: Female kind of is the default gender in humans. Some fetuses, however, differentiate into males some time after conception. I like to think of it as “testosterone poisoning.”

  18. Butterflywings

    Female is the default, in humans. Women with Turner’s syndrome, who have one X chromosome (not XX) are female. Without the Y chromosome, the foetus develops as female by default. Most Turner’s women would be rather offended to be considered ‘neuter’.
    Of course, you could argue there is nothing wrong with being neuter…gender is certainly a social construction, but the default *sex* is female.
    Of course, patriarchal notions see the male as default. My point being, that they are wrong.

  19. yttik

    “What about the bane of the gardeners world, aphids?”

    Yes, upon learning this about aphids I gave them sovereignty over my roses. Now I look at my aphid bushes and smile.

  20. goblinbee

    For Butterflywings and others, from Joan Roughgarden’s “Evolution’s Rainbow”:

    “To a biologist, “male” means making small gametes, and “female” means making large gametes. Period! By definition, the smaller of the two gametes is called a sperm, and the larger an egg. Beyond gamete size, biologists don’t recognize any other universal difference between male and female. Of course, indirect markers of gamete size may exist in some species. In mammals, males usually have a Y chromosome. But whether an individual is male or not comes down to making sperm, and the males in some mammalian species don’t have a Y chromosome. Moreover, in birds, reptiles, and amphibians, the Y chromosome doesn’t occur. However, the gamete-size definition is general and works throughout the plant and animal kingdom.”

    She goes on to list a few exceptions–rare algaes, fungis, and protozoans that have gametes the same size–and says the distinction between male and female does not apply.

    Fascinating stuff!

  21. Liz

    Antoinette Niebieszczanski, you beat me to the ‘spinster ant’ joke.

    goblinbee, thanks for the explanation from Joan Roughgarden (who, I believe has/had the smaller gametes). I always wondered about seahorses–how they say the males birth the babies. I always wondered why then they don’t call that the female. The size of the gamete must explain it.

  22. Kate Dino

    Ditto PhysioProf.

  23. tinfoil hattie

    One less mouth to feed, one less main dish to buy.

    Orange, thanks for sticking this song into my head;

    “One less bell to answer
    One less egg to fry
    One less man to pick up after
    I should be happy,
    but all I do is cry.”

    The P in a nutshell. Oh, there are so many ways to describe the P in a nutshell.

  24. undercover punk

    @Sutton & Butterflywings: A-ha! THANK YOU for clarifying! I got so bound up in patriarchal conditioning that I “forgot” the natural, biological order of female primacy. Indeed, the patriarchy is oh-so-WRONG. Again. I blame!

  25. Whit

    Arg….. aphids go through a very complex reproductive cycle where some generations are clonal and others reproduce sexually. The problem with people studying insects is that they often don’t stick around long enough to get the whole picture. Still haven’t asked my old entomology prof about these ants. Will log into facebook one of these days and do it.

  26. Julia

    Female is the “default gender” for cells (fungal, bacterial, insect, and animal). Even human foreskin fibroblasts divide into two “daughter” cells. Some yeast have multiple mating types, which are not classed as male/female but as a and alpha.

    Another example of sexual interestingness is the nematode c. elegans, a common model organism. (I’d say “oddity, but given the vast numbers of nematodes, that would be way too anthropocentric of me.) Mostly, nematodes are female, i.e. by default, and self-fertilize. But in stressful conditions (starvation, for example), they will produce male worms as well as females, and cross-fertilize. Males are smaller than females (less costly to produce) and cross-fertilization increases the chances of beneficial mixing of traits that might be advantageous in hard times.

    For the strong of stomach, google “bag of worms phenotype”.

    Female is kind of the default gender for humans, anyway. Certain genes need to be switched on as the genitourital structures develop (remember the Mullarian and Wolfian ducts, anyone?). If not, for example if a person who is XY lacks a functional androgen receptor protein, they develop as female, though lacking a uterus.

    One last: when I worked in a mouse lab, I saw the lady mice engaging in, uh, fake sex quite a few times in the timed-pregnancy cages. (For the very strong of stomach, google “mouse vaginal plug”, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

    There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio …

  27. undercover punk

    Julia, I’m sorry, what is ‘fake sex’? (I am heeding your warning, thank you.)

  28. MaryK

    I don’t think that these ants are all female really has to do with “default” gender here. Ants are a little different from most other species as far as sex determination goes. Most ants, bees and wasps have a “haplodiploid” system in which if eggs get fertilized, they become female, and if they don’t get fertilized, they develop into males. It looks like these ants just get both copies of their DNA from the queen without fertilization. Since they have two copies of DNA, by definition, they’re female in the ant world.

  29. Hedgepig

    Like Liz, I always wondered why science folk claimed male seahorses gave birth because I always thought females were identified by the capacity to bear young/lay eggs. Now it turns out it’s the size of the gametes! How like the science community to decide on a socially irrelevant attribute to determine sex! When there’s a very clear socially relevant one available! I’m sure They had very good reasons.

  30. Twisty

    “Fake sex,” in the whiptail lizard community, is two lizards doin’ it, even though — brace yourselves — they are both female.

    !!!

    The phrase “fake sex” comes from this website. Although, judging from the description therein, the sex isn’t “fake” at all, since it appears to play a significant role in “fecundity.” Obviously it is only described as “fake” because there is no peen-prongin’.

  31. Jonathan

    @Twisty:

    Obviously it is only described as “fake” because there is no peen-prongin’.

    Wow, there’s some major propaganda work on that site:

    “Some salamanders of the genus Ambystoma are gynogenetic and appear to have been so for over a million years. It is believed that the success of those salamanders may be due to the rare (perhaps only one mating out of a million) actual fertilization of eggs by a male, introducing new material to the gene pool.”

    So these salamanders have lived for over a million years with essentially no sexual reproduction. Yet the survival of their species is attributed to a biologist’s belief in male fertilization!

    Jeebus! Dudes, get over yourselves! Or at the very least, stop reading sci-fi while at work. That whole male-saves-the-matriarchy-with-sperm plot has been done to death.

  32. Sascha

    I rather like this sentence in the article:

    This species – the first ever to be shown to reproduce entirely without sex – cultivates a garden of fungus, which also reproduces asexually.

    I suppose they meant “the first species OF ANT ever to…”?

  33. undercover punk

    Well, the link isn’t working for me. But I’ll take your word for it, Twisty. Anyways, I suspected as much. Fecundity is overrated; ‘fake (human) sex’ is The Way Forward.

    PS. Love the pingback, thanks.

  34. goblinbee

    “How like the science community to decide on a socially irrelevant attribute to determine sex! When there’s a very clear socially relevant one available!”

    Hedgepig, I’m not understanding where you’re coming from. The gamete-size distinction seems fairly value-free, and is the best attribute discovered so far to apply to most species in the plant and animal kingdoms. Distinctions by “social relevance” are, as we can experience every day, open to interpretation and prejudice. Roughgarden does not claim that biological categories are the same as social categories. Female/male is not the same as woman/man, although I wish it was. I wish the gamete-size definition would be sung from the rooftops!

  35. a. brown

    I have had the privilege of studying cnemidophorous uniparens, also known as the “Lesbian Lizards of Cochise County”, and they’re lovely.

    If anyone here hasn’t read “Herland” by Perkins-Gilman, do it!

  36. Antoinette Niebieszczanski

    “Lesbian Lizards of Cochise County”

    Gadzooks! It sounds like a treacly novel by Robert James Waller.

  37. Squiggy

    “undercover punk
    April 17, 2009 at 7:32 am
    Well, the link isn’t working for me.”

    After you click Twisty’s link just put an h in front of the ttp and it’ll work.

  38. Hedgepig

    goblinbee, you’re quite right. I had a bit of a half-cocked loose cannon moment back there.

  39. zelda1

    Ants are fascinating on so many levels from their incredible work ethic, to their extraordinary strength, but now I see that they rock reproductively.

  40. Twisty

    I wonder, in ants, if it’s so much a work ethic as it is “work or die.” I bet they feed the Amdro to the lazy ones.

  41. virago

    “If not, for example if a person who is XY lacks a functional androgen receptor protein, they develop as female, though lacking a uterus.”

    Not necessarily:

    http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=2190741

  42. ACS

    As a spinster aunt, I am one of the world’s preeminent comical antologists, but even to a layperson there can be no mystery as to why insects that are “physically incapable of mating” because “an essential part” of their bidness has “degenerated” are considered female.

    Male ants are haploid. They only have half the genome of the ants that lay eggs — the female ones. This species, apparently, doesn’t have any haploid ants.

    Using the same convention that’s used for every other ant, though, these diploid, egg-laying ants with no males are female. They’re genetically similar to the egg-laying ants of every other species.

  43. Clare

    ‘They only have half the genome of the ants that lay eggs ‘

    True for humans? I know we don’t ‘lay eggs’ as such. But that would explain a lot.

  44. ACS

    True for humans? I know we don’t ‘lay eggs’ as such. But that would explain a lot.

    Nope. Ants (and bees and wasps) are unique in that regard. It’s the reason they have colonial societies: each ant is more closely related to its sisters than its own offspring, so protecting their sisters is more important, in terms of preserving the ant’s genes, than protecting its kids or the (short-lived, useless) males in its hive.

    Any lessons you can draw from that are purely coincidental.

  45. Rugosa

    Goblinbee, thanks for the quote from Roughgarden. I have a few biology courses under my belt, and like to show off, so I’ll throw in that biologists sometimes view evolution and adaptation in terms of trade-offs. Asexual reproduction saves muss and fuss in the short run, but lack of genetic diversity can leave a species without the tools to adapt to changing conditions. The occasional dose of gene mixing keeps a species on its toes, evolutionarily speaking. Completely asexual species tend to have short lifespans (as species, not as individuals). It’s got nothing to do with maleness being better or even necessary – sex is just the method by which genes are mixed in these species. Bacteria, which haven’t evolved into separate sexes, have a few ways of exchanging genetic material, including glomming some from viruses. It’s a truly amazing world – too bad the MSM dumbs it down beyond recognition.

  46. Amos

    Expanding on what ACS said, if we want to learn a lesson from ants it shoud be that social cooperation trumps genetic selfishness. The more-closely-related-to-sisters thing only applies when the queen only mates once, which is not true for many ants. Yet they maintain the colonial society because of its advantages.

    Of course that’s meaningless to humans, but it’s nice to have a fable that is opposite of the standard evolutionary psychology myth.

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