Understanding colonial traits using symbiosis research and ecosystem ecology

Biological Theory 4 (3):240-246 (2009)
E. O. Wilson (1974: 54) describes the problem that social organisms pose: “On what bases do we distinguish the extremely modified members of an invertebrate colony from the organs of a metazoan animal?” This framing of the issue has inspired many to look more closely at how groups of organisms form and behave as emergent individuals. The possible existence of “superorganisms” test our best intuitions about what can count and act as genuine biological individuals and how we should study them. As we will discuss, colonies of certain organisms display many of the properties that we usually reserve only to individual organisms. Although there is good reason to believe that many social insects form genuine emergent biological individuals, the conclusion offered here is of a slightly different sort. I will argue that to understand some social insects' interactions and the emergent traits they give rise to, it may be helpful to shift our understanding from a community-level approach to an ecosystem-level approach. I will argue that viewing certain insect colonies (termites) as parts of ecosystems allows us to better understand some of the adaptations that have emerged from their evolution.
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