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Selective Foraging by Pogonomyrmex salinus (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) in Semiarid Grassland: Implications for a Rare Plant

Schmasow, Matthew S., Robertson, Ian C.
Environmental entomology 2016 v.45 no.4 pp. 952-960
Bromus tectorum, Lepidium, Poa secunda, Pogonomyrmex salinus, Sisymbrium altissimum, ant colonies, arid lands, diet, foraging, granivores, grasses, grasslands, harvester ants, nutrient content, rare species, seed predation, seeds, Idaho
Selective foraging by granivores can have important consequences for the structure and composition of plant communities, and potentially severe consequences for rare plant species. To understand how granivore foraging behavior affects common and rare plant species, diet selection should be viewed relative to the availability of alternative seed options, and with consideration of the individual attributes of those seeds (e.g., morphology, nutrient content). We examined the foraging decisions of Owyhee harvester ants, Pogonomyrmex salinus (Olsen), in semiarid grassland dominated by two species of grass, Poa secunda and Bromus tectorum, and two species of mustard, Sisymbrium altissimum and Lepidium papilliferum. The latter is a rare plant endemic to southwestern Idaho, and its seeds are readily consumed by P. salinus. We examined the diets of P. salinus colonies in June and July over three years and compared these values to the weekly availability of seeds on the ground in a 3–12 -m radius around individual ant colonies. Small-seeded species (P. secunda, S. altissimum, and L. papilliferum) were usually overrepresented in the diet of ants relative to their availability, whereas the large seeds of B. tectorum were largely avoided despite being abundant and nutritious. The reduced travel time associated with carrying small seeds may overshadow differences in nutritional content among seed types, except in times when small seeds are in short supply. Lepidium papilliferum appears particularly vulnerable to seed predation, likely in part because it grows in dense patches that are easily exploited by foragers.