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Can a Worker Ant Become a Queen?

By Kevin Hellyer
Updated May 17, 2024
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An ant’s world is simple. You’re either the queen or you’re a worker. Workers find food and provide security. The queen’s job is to create new workers. Usually, this hierarchy provides no upward mobility. But for one species, the Jerdon's jumping ant (Harpegnathos saltator), a worker can transform into a queen.

Here’s how: When a queen dies, workers do battle to win the crown. Hormonal changes turn the workers into "gamergates," meaning they have queen-like characteristics. Their venom sacs shrivel, their ovaries plump, and their lifespan increases significantly.

Recently, biologists and geneticists at the University of Pennsylvania have discovered that a single protein in the brain of a Jerdon's jumping ant initiates these hormonal changes, which can ultimately lead to a worker wearing the crown.

From worker to queen:

  • In the research, published earlier this year in the journal Cell, the scientists found that an injection of the hormone JH3 decreased the ants’ hunting activity. Conversely, a hormone known as 20E stimulated ovary activation.

  • Both hormones seemed to influence the ants’ neurological processes by activating a protein factor known as Krüppel homolog 1 (Kr-h1), which is the key to how hormones trigger the switch from one social caste to another.

  • The study authors say they want to investigate whether the role of Kr-h1 exists in other social organisms that share similar neurological hormones.

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