Almost all of the more than 200 species of fungus-growing ants (Formicidae: Attini) cultivate litter-decomposing fungi in the family Lepiotaceae (Basidiomycota: Agaricales). The single exception to this rule is a subgroup of ant species within the lower attine genus Apterostigma, which cultivate pterulaceous fungi distantly related to the Lepiotaceae. Comparison of cultivar and ant phylogenies suggests that a switch from lepiotaceous to pterulaceous fungiculture occurred only once in the history of the fungus-growing ants. This unique switch occurred after the origin of the genus Apterostigma, such that the basal Apterostigma lineages retained the ancestral attine condition of lepiotaceous fungiculture, and none of the Apterostigma lineages in the monophyletic group of pterulaceous fungiculturists are known to have reverted back to lepiotaceous fungiculture. The origin of pterulaceous fungiculture in attine ants may have involved a unique transition from the ancestral cultivation of litter-decomposing lepiotaceous fungi to the cultivation of wood-decomposing pterulaceous fungi. Phylogenetic analyses further indicate that distantly related Apterostigma ant species sometimes cultivate the same cultivar lineage, indicating evolutionarily frequent, and possibly ongoing, exchanges of fungal cultivars between Apterostigma ant species. The pterulaceous cultivars form two sister clades, and different Apterostigma ant lineages are invariably associated with, and thus specialized on, only one of the two cultivar clades. However, within clades Apterostigma ant species are able to switch between fungi. This pattern of broad specialization by attine ants on defined cultivar clades, coupled with flexible switching between fungi within cultivar clades, is also found in other attine lineages and appears to be a general phenomenon of fungicultural evolution in all fungus-growing ants.
Vol. 58 • No. 10
Vol. 58 • No. 10