Protection Mutualisms and the Community: Geographic Variation in an Ant-Plant Symbiosis and the Consequences for Herbivores

Elizabeth G. Pringle, Deborah M Gordon

Abstract


Protection mutualisms mediate trophic interactions in many systems, but their effects on the surrounding community are rarely studied. Ant-plant symbioses are classic examples of protection mutualisms: myrmecophytic plants provide nesting space and food for symbiotic ants in exchange for ant defense. Ant defense should thus reduce the abundance of herbivores, but studies of ant-plant symbioses usually measure damage to the plant without quantifying the herbivores themselves. In this study, we investigated whether geographic variation in the quality of ant defense in a symbiotic mutualism between Cordia alliodora trees and Azteca ants was associated with the abundance and species richness of plant herbivore communities. In three tropical-dry-forest sites in Middle America, we found that the density of Azteca ants within trees was negatively associated with the levels of leaf herbivory. At sites where ants were effective tree defenders, tree herbivores were less abundant and herbivore assemblages on trees exhibited lower species richness than at a site where ants were poor defenders. In addition, in a site where ants reduced herbivory, herbivore communities were less abundant and diverse in the presence of ants than in their absence, where as in a site where ants did not reduce herbivory, there were no differences in herbivore abundance or richness between trees with or without ants. We conclude that geographic variation in the quality of ant defense drives variation in myrmecophytic-plant herbivore communities. Moreover, ant-plant protection mutualisms should have important but rarely considered effects on herbivore population dynamics and food-plant specialization.


Keywords


Ant-plant mutualism; Azteca; context dependence; Cordia alliodora; seasonally dry tropical forest; trophic cascades

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References


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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.13102/sociobiology.v60i3.242-251

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