- Effects of forest fragmentation on bottom-up control in leaf-cuttings ants (2005)
- Fragmentation of tropical rain forests is pervasive and results in various modifications in the ecosystem functioning such as … It has long been noticed that the colony densities of a dominant herbivore in the neotropics - leaf-cutting ant (LCA) - increase in fragmentation-related habitats like forest edges and small fragments, however the reasons for this increase are not clear. The aim of the study was to test the hypothesis that bottom-up control of LCA populations is less effective in fragmented compared to continuous forests and thus explains the increase in LCA colony densities in these habitats. In order to test for less effective bottom-up control, I proposed four working hypotheses. I hypothesized that LCA colonies in fragmented habitats (1) find more palatable vegetation due to low plant defences, (2) forage on few dominant species resulting in a narrow diet breadth, (3) possess small foraging areas and (4) increase herbivory rate at the colony level. The study was conducted in the remnants of the Atlantic rainforest in NE Brazil. Two fragmentation-related forest habitats were included: the edge and a 3500-ha continuous forest and the interior of the 50-ha forest fragment. The interior of the continuous forest served as a control habitat for the study. All working hypotheses can be generally accepted. The results indicate that the abundance of LCA host plant species in the habitats created by forest fragmentation along with weaker chemical defense of those species (especially the lack of terpenoids) allow ants to forage predominantly on palatable species and thus reduce foraging costs on other species. This is supported by narrower ant diet breadth in these habitats. Similarly, small foraging areas in edge habitats and in small forest fragments indicate that there ants do not have to go far to find the suitable host species and thus they save foraging costs. Increased LCA herbivory rates indicate that the damages (i.e., amount of harvested foliage) caused by LCA are more important in fragmentation-related habitats which are more vulnerable to LCA herbivory due to the high availability of palatable plants and a low total amount of foliage (LAI). (1) Few plant defences, (2) narrower ant diet breadth, (3) reduced colony foraging areas, and (4) increased herbivory rates, clearly indicate a weaker bottom-up control for LCA in fragmented habitats. Weak bottom-up control in the fragmentation-related habitats decreases the foraging costs of a LCA colony in these habitats and the colonies might use the surplus of energy resulting from reduced foraging costs to increase the colony growth, the reproduction and turnover. If correct, this explains why fragmented habitats support more LCA colonies at a given time compared to continuous forest habitats. Further studies are urgently needed to estimate LCA colony growth and turnover rates. There are indices that edge effects of forest fragmentation might be more responsible in regulating LCA populations than area or isolation effects. This emphasizes the need to conserve big forest fragments not to fall below a critical size and retain their regular shape. Weak bottom-up control of LCA populations has various consequences on forested ecosystems. I suggest a loop between forest fragmentation and LCA population dynamics: the increased LCA colony densities, along with lower bottom-up control increase LCA herbivory pressure on the forest and thus inevitably amplify the deleterious effects of fragmentation. These effects include direct consequences of leaf removal by ants and various indirect effects on ecosystem functioning. This study contributes to our understanding of how primary fragmentation effects, via the alteration of trophic interactions, may translate into higher order effects on ecosystem functions.