Polygamy is not a rare sexual behavior among animals. Even many groups of pre-civilized humans practiced polygamy. When it comes to insects, polygamous sexual relations are the norm. Polygamy serves to promote species survival. If polygamy hindered the ability for animal species to survive, then most animals would be monogamous. Most types of ants, for example, are polygamous in nature. Having multiple reproductive queens within one single ant colony results in a greater number of ant workers. Sometimes individual ant colonies merge into one single ant colony. These colonies include multiple queens and kings. The term “pleometrosis” is used when one single colony is formed from the merging of multiple colonies. Despite the numerous cases of polygamy among different species of insect, researchers have long believed that termites were mostly monogamous. In other words, termite colonies only contain one queen and king, or only one pair of reproductives. However, researchers have recently discovered a type of termite species from Central America that is clearly polygamous.
Researchers working in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institute discovered that a little known termite species in Panama, the N. corniger, indulges in polygamous sexual relations. Unlike polygamous ant colonies, the Panamanian termites did not form as a result of pleometrosis. According to researchers that reared these termites in a laboratory, termite colonies that were polygamous during the earliest stages of colony formation did not survive long. This was due to the intense sexual competition between numerous reproductives within the colony. As a result of this constant competition, the queen termites were not able to clean their eggs often enough. This resulted in the eggs succumbing to disease within the bacteria-rich soil.
Termite queens must spend all of their time grooming their eggs in order to prevent them from succumbing to pathogens. Termite queens cannot dedicate time to grooming their eggs if they are focused on sexual competition. This is why termites are more often monogamous. The N. corniger is different in that individual termite colonies do eventually form into one. However, individual termite colonies do not form into one single colony until each colony has produced enough workers to manage the task of egg grooming themselves. At this point the N. corniger queens are no longer responsible for egg-grooming, and they can instead divert their energies to sexual competition within polygamous colonies.
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