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Field experiments show contradictory short‐ and long‐term myrmecochorous plant impacts on seed‐dispersing ants

Warren, Robert J., II, Elliott, Katherine J., Giladi, Itamar, King, Joshua R., Bradford, Mark A.
Ecological entomology 2019 v.44 no.1 pp. 30-39
Formicidae, ant colonies, field experimentation, herbaceous plants, lipid content, mutualism, seed dispersal, seeds, understory, North America
1. Some interactions previously described as mutualistic were revealed to be commensal or parasitic in subsequent investigations. Ant‐mediated seed dispersal has been described as a mutualism for more than a century; however, recent research suggests that it may be commensal or parasitic. Plants demonstrably benefit from ant‐mediated seed dispersal, although there is little evidence available to demonstrate that the interaction benefits long‐term ant fitness. 2. Field experiments were conducted in temperate North America focused on a key seed‐dispersing ant. All herbaceous plants were removed from a forest understorey for 13 years, and supplemented ant colonies with large elaiosome‐bearing seeds aiming to examine potential long‐ and short‐term myrmecochorous plant benefits for the ants. 3. If elaiosome‐bearing seeds benefit ants, suggesting a mutualistic relationship, it is expected that there would be greater worker and/or alate abundance and greater fat reserves (colony lipid content) with seed supplementation (short‐term) and in areas with high understorey herb abundance. 4. Short‐term seed supplementation of ant colonies did not result in an increase with respect to numbers or fat stores, although it did prompt the production of colony sexuals, which is a potential fitness benefit. In the long term, however, there was no positive effect on the ants and, instead, there were negative effects because the removal of elaiosome‐bearing plants corresponded with greater colony health. 5. The data obtained in the present study suggest that the ant–plant interaction ranged from occasionally beneficial to neutral to overall negative for the ant partner. Such results did not support considering the interaction as a mutualism. Collectively, the data suggest the need to reconsider the nature of the relationship between these ants and plants.