, Volume 7, Issue 12, pp 1627-1638

Ants as bioindicators of habitat disturbance: validation of the functional group model for Australia's humid tropics

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Abstract

A functional group model of ant community composition has been widely used in Australia to analyse biogeographical patterns of ant community structure and the responses of ant communities to disturbance. The model has provided valuable support to the widespread use of ant communities as bioindicators of ecological change. However, the model was developed from studies of arid-zone faunas, and its applicability to the World Heritage rainforests of Queensland's humid tropics has not yet been validated. Here we test predictions based on the functional group model for ant communities in Queensland's humid rainforests, by documenting ant community composition and its responses to disturbance on the Atherton Tablelands. Five sites were studied, comprising two relatively undisturbed reference sites representing contrasting rainforest types, and three previously cleared sites, two of which were undergoing revegetation. A variety of sampling techniques were employed, including pitfall trapping, litter extractions, baiting, and general searching. A total of 50 ant species from 29 genera were collected. Site species richness was highest at the reference sites, and lowest at the unvegetated disturbed site, and overall was negatively related to mean ground temperature. As predicted by the functional group model, behaviorally dominant dolichoderines were uncommon or absent at the reference sites, and the most common ants were Generalized myrmicines and Opportunists. Also as predicted, habitat disturbance favored Opportunists, and, as the disturbance involved canopy clearance, this led to colonization by Iridomyrmex and other Dominant dolichoderines. Opportunists represented about 40% of total ants in traps at the reference sites, compared with 80–95% at the disturbed sites. Except one species, Tropical Climate Specialists and Specialist Predators were absent from disturbed sites.

In conclusion, patterns of ant composition in relation to disturbance on the Atherton Tablelands conform to the functional group model that has been widely applied to ant faunas elsewhere in Australia. The model may therefore play an important role in the use of ants as bioindicators of ecological change in the World Heritage rainforests of this region.