, Volume 59, Issue 2, pp 215-221
Date: 19 Nov 2011

Ant colonization and coarse woody debris decomposition in temperate forests

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Ants are ubiquitous, abundant and have widespread impacts on ecological communities and ecosystem processes. However, ant effects on coarse woody debris decomposition are unexplored. Several ant species colonize coarse woody debris for nesting, and this puts them in contact with fauna and microbes that utilize coarse woody debris as habitat and food, potentially influencing nutrient cycling and, ultimately, forest productivity. We report results from a field experiment employing 138 artificial ant nests (routed pine blocks) across five locations in southeastern US deciduous forests. We examine the correspondence between ant, termite and wood-eating fungi colonization and variation in coarse woody debris decomposition. After 1 year, nests colonized by ants had 5% more mass than those not colonized. Ant colonization corresponded with significantly less termite- and fungal-mediated decomposition of the nests. Without ants, termites removed 11.5% and fungi removed 4% more wood biomass. Ants, termites and wood-eating fungi all colonized pine nests where temperatures were highest, and ants also preferred higher soil moisture whereas termites and fungi responded negatively to high soil moisture when temperatures were higher. Ants reduce termite colonies through predation, and may inhibit fungi through the secretion of antimicrobial compounds. Our results indicate that interactions between forest understory ants, termites and fungi may influence the rate of coarse woody debris decomposition—biotic interactions that potentially influence forest structure and function.