Colony genetic organization and colony fusion in the termite Reticulitermes flavipes as revealed by foraging patterns over time and space.
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Temporal and spatial analyses are seldom utilized in the study of colony genetic structure, but they are potentially powerful methods which can yield novel insights into the mechanisms underlying variation in breeding systems. Here we present the results of a study which incorporated both of these dimensions in an examination of genetic structure of subterranean termites in the genus Reticulitermes (primarily R. flavipes). Most colonies of this species (70%) were simple families apparently headed by outbred primary reproductives, while most of the remaining (27% of the total) colonies contained low effective numbers of moderately inbred reproductives. Mapping the spatial distribution of colony foraging sites over time revealed that despite the high colony density, the absolute foraging boundaries of most R. flavipes colonies were persistent and exclusive of other conspecific colonies, which suggests that this species is more territorial than has been implied by laboratory studies of intraspecific aggression. Nevertheless, we found a single colony (3% of all colonies) which contained the offspring of more than two unrelated reproductives. Although other studies have also described subterranean termite colonies with a similarly complex genetic composition, we demonstrate here that such colonies can form under natural conditions via the fusion of whole colonies. This study underscores how repeated sampling from individual colonies over time and space can yield information about colony spatial and genetic structure that cannot be obtained from conventional analyses or sampling methods.