Viviane Callier in Quanta Magazine:
Animals that produce many offspring tend to have short lives, while less prolific species tend to live longer. Cockroaches lay hundreds of eggs while living less than a year. Mice have dozens of babies during their year or two of life. Humpback whales produce only one calf every two or three years and live for decades. The rule of thumb seems to reflect evolutionary strategies that channel nutritional resources either into reproducing quickly or into growing more robust for a long-term advantage.
But ant queens can have it all. In some ant species, queens live more than 30 years while laying the thousands upon thousands of eggs that become all the workers in the nest. In contrast, worker ants, which are females that don’t reproduce, live only months. Yet if circumstances demand it, the workers of some species can step up to become pseudo-queens for the good of the nest — and to reap a significant extension in their life span.
What governs this gigantic range in ant life span is poorly understood, but two recent studies have revealed important details about what makes the life spans of ants so flexible. In Science, researchers at New York University showed that some ant queens produce a protein that suppresses the aging effect of insulin so that they can consume all the additional food needed for their egg-laying without shortening their lives. And in a preprint recently posted on the biorxiv.org server, researchers in Germany described a parasite that greatly lengthens the lives of its ant hosts by secreting a rich cocktail of antioxidants and other compounds. Both studies add to the evidence that the observed life spans of organisms have little to do with limitations imposed by their genes.