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.
Herbivory is discussed as a key agent in maintaining dynamics and stability of tropical forested ecosystems. Accordingly increasing attention has been paid to the factors that structure tropical herbivore communities. The aim of this study was (1) to describe diversity, density, distribution and host range of the phasmid community (Phasmatodea) of a moist neotropical forest in Panamá, and (2) to experimentally assess bottom-up and top-down factors that may regulate populations of the phasmid Metriophasma diocles. The phasmid community of Barro Colorado Island was poor in species and low in density. Phasmids mainly occurred along forest edges and restricted host ranges of phasmid species reflected the successional status of their host plants. Only M. diocles that fed on early and late successional plants occurred regularly in the forest understory. A long generation time with a comparably low fecundity converted into a low biotic potential of M. diocles. However, modeled potential population density increased exponentially and exceeded the realized densities of this species already after one generation indicating that control factors continuously affect M. diocles natural populations. Egg hatching failure decreased potential population growth by 10 % but was of no marked effect at larger temporal scale. Interspecific differences in defensive physical and chemical leaf traits of M. diocles host plants, amongst them leaf toughness the supposedly most effective anti-herbivore defense, seemed not to affect adult female preference and nymph performance. Alternatively to these defenses, I suggest that the pattern of differential preference and performance may be based on interspecific differences in qualitative toxic compounds or in nutritive quality of leaves. The significant rejection of leaf tissue with a low artificial increase of natural phenol contents by nymphs indicated a qualitative defensive pathway in Piper evolution. In M. diocles, oviposition may not be linked to nymph performance, because the evolutionary prediction of a relation between female adult preference and nymph performance was missing. Consequently, the recruitment of nymphs into the reproductive adult phase may be crucially affected by differential performance of nymphs. Neonate M. diocles nymphs suffered strong predation pressure when exposed to natural levels of predation. Concluding from significantly increased predation-related mortality at night, I argue that arthropods may be the main predators of this nocturnal herbivore. Migratory behavior of nymphs seemed not to reflect predation avoidance. Instead, I provided first evidence that host plant quality may trigger off-plant migration. In conclusion, I suggest that predation pressure with its direct effects on nymph survival may be a stronger factor regulating M. diocles populations, compared to direct and indirect effects of host plant quality, particularly because slow growth and off-host migration both may feed back into an increase of predation related mortality.