Plant-animal interactions - Original research

Oecologia

, Volume 170, Issue 3, pp 677-685

First online:

Plant defense, herbivory, and the growth of Cordia alliodora trees and their symbiotic Azteca ant colonies

  • Elizabeth G. PringleAffiliated withBiology Department, Stanford UniversityMichigan Society of Fellows, University of Michigan Email author 
  • , Rodolfo DirzoAffiliated withBiology Department, Stanford University
  • , Deborah M. GordonAffiliated withBiology Department, Stanford University

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Abstract

The effects of herbivory on plant fitness are integrated over a plant’s lifetime, mediated by ontogenetic changes in plant defense, tolerance, and herbivore pressure. In symbiotic ant–plant mutualisms, plants provide nesting space and food for ants, and ants defend plants against herbivores. The benefit to the plant of sustaining the growth of symbiotic ant colonies depends on whether defense by the growing ant colony outpaces the plant’s growth in defendable area and associated herbivore pressure. These relationships were investigated in the symbiotic mutualism between Cordia alliodora trees and Azteca pittieri ants in a Mexican tropical dry forest. As ant colonies grew, worker production remained constant relative to ant-colony size. As trees grew, leaf production increased relative to tree size. Moreover, larger trees hosted lower densities of ants, suggesting that ant-colony growth did not keep pace with tree growth. On leaves with ants experimentally excluded, herbivory per unit leaf area increased exponentially with tree size, indicating that larger trees experienced higher herbivore pressure per leaf area than smaller trees. Even with ant defense, herbivory increased with tree size. Therefore, although larger trees had larger ant colonies, ant density was lower in larger trees, and the ant colonies did not provide sufficient defense to compensate for the higher herbivore pressure in larger trees. These results suggest that in this system the tree can decrease herbivory by promoting ant-colony growth, i.e., sustaining space and food investment in ants, as long as the tree continues to grow.

Keywords

Allometry Ant–plant mutualism Chamela-Cuixmala Biosphere Reserve Mexico Ontogeny Positive feedback