Date of Award
Master of Science (MS)
Sara Helms Cahan
A fundamental challenge faced by all organisms is the risk of infection by pathogens that can significantly reduce their fitness. The evolutionary dynamic between hosts and pathogens is expected to be a coevolutionary cycle, as pathogens evolve by increasing their level of virulence and hosts respond by increasing their level of resistance. The factors that influence the dynamics of adaptation by pathogen and host in response to one another are not well understood. Social insects live in dense colonies in high-pathogen soil environments, making them an ideal model system to study the factors influencing the evolution of pathogen resistance. In this thesis work, I investigated several alternative hypotheses to explain patterns of host resistance to entomopathogenic fungi in the harvester ant genus Pogonomyrmex: that high resistance is associated with high environmental pathogen loads, that local adaptation leads to increased resistance to coevolved pathogen populations, that life history tradeoffs increase allocation to resistance in harsher environments, and that increased genetic diversity caused by interspecific hybridization enhances inherent resistance. First, I characterized patterns of spatial variation in abundance and diversity of fungal pathogens among habitats of Pogonomyrmex species. I found 17 genera of fungi in the soil, six of which were entomopathogenic. Lower precipitation habitats, where P. rugosus occurs, had the lowest diversity, while the highest was experienced by the H lineage, one of two hybrid populations. When actual infection rates of field-caught workers were compared, the mesic-habitat P. barbatus was infected significantly more often. These results suggest that habitat does plays a role in fungal diversity, and that species are exposed to more entomopathogens may be more likely to get infected. Second, I tested experimentally whether hybridization and or habitat differences play a role in pathogen resistance by testing the effect of soil type and species identity on infection rates in pupae of the two species and their hybrids. This experiment showed P. rugosus ants had the highest inherent resistance to infection, supporting the life history tradeoff hypothesis. This suggest that Pogonomyrmex ants species are allocating their resources differently according to their environment, with more stressful environment leading to less investment in reproduction and more in protection against pathogens. Overall our study shows that environment plays a role in differences in infection risk, while genetic effects such as hybridization may not play a role in pathogen resistance.
Number of Pages
Hernaiz-Hernandez, Yainna M., "Effects of hybridization and life history tradeoffs on pathogen resistance in the Harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex)" (2015). Graduate College Dissertations and Theses. 518.