Native harvester ants threatened with widespread displacement exert localized effects on serpentine grassland plant community composition

  • Peters H
  • Chiariello N
  • Mooney H
 et al. 
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Abstract

Seed-harvesting ants can influence the abundance and distribution of plant species through both the selective harvesting of seeds and the construction of nutrient-rich nest mounds, but the relative contributions of these two mechanisms have not been addressed by previous studies. Furthermore, the impact of ant seed harvesting in California serpentine grasslands remains unresolved because of divergent results from several previous experiments. This study investigates the influence of harvester ants on serpentine grassland plant species composition by examining two potential signatures of seed harvesting ants on plant community composition: species composition on versus off ant nest mounds, and species abundance as a function of distance from nest mounds. Of the 28 plant species identified in this study, 22 exhibited spatial patterns consistent with effects of seed harvesting, nest construction, or both. Although most species showed significant gradients in abundance with distance from a nest, there were no clear relationships between plant species distributions and previously reported harvester ant seed foraging patterns. Harvester ant nest mounds supported plant communities that were distinct from the surrounding serpentine grassland, with notably higher densities of legumes and invasive annual grasses. Comparison of our results with those of previous studies indicates that the patterns we observed are generally consistent over time, but affect more species and a larger fraction of the grassland than previously reported. Unaffected areas of the grassland seem likely to serve as important refuges for some plant species.

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