Riitta Savolainen - Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Myrmica rubra, photo: Riitta Savolainen

Systematics and Evolutionary Biology of Ants

Docent Riitta Savolainen

The goal of our research is to reconstruct phylogenies of several Holarctic ant groups using DNA sequence data and model-based phylogenetic inference methods. We are interested in the systematic relationships of ants as such, but particularly we study evolutionary-biological questions, such as social parasitism, speciation, phylogeography, and biogeography.

We study several tribes and genera of the two largest ant subfamilies, Formicinae and Myrmicinae. Of these, we concentrate on those groups that include social parasites, ants that exploit other ant species for their own reproduction. Three types of social parasites are found: temporary parasites, slave-making ants, and workerless parasites, or inquilines.

Formica rufa, photo: Riitta Savolainen

Of each ant group, we have sampled as many parasitic and nonparasitic species as possible. This allows us to ask, for example, the following questions. How many times have social parasites evolved in a particular group? What is the closest relative of a parasite? If the parasite is the closest relative to its host, could it have originated sympatrically, through intraspecific parasitism?

We study the genera Formica, Lasius, Plagiolepis, and Polyergus of Formicinae. Of Myrmicinae, we focus on Manica, Monomorium, Myrmica and the tribes Myrmicini and Formicoxenini. Myrmica is of special interest, as it includes many inquiline parasites which vary in age and specialization to parasitism. In particular, we investigate Myrmica rubra and its inquiline, a young parasite and possible incipient species; here we combine phylogeographic, population-genetic and behavioral approaches. Monomorium renders fruitful prospects for an island-biogeographic study, as several species are endemic to the Canary Islands.

The research group in Systematics and Evolutionary Biology of Ants includes Ms. Hannele Anthoni, M.Sc. Gunther Jansen, M.Sc. Jenni Leppänen, Dr. Riitta Savolainen and Dr. Kari Vepsäläinen, and collaborators at the University of Helsinki and other institutions.

Myrmica rubra, photo: Riitta Savolainen


Contact: riitta.savolainen(at)helsinki.fi