Do extrafloral nectar resources, species abundances, and body sizes contribute to the structure of ant–plant mutualistic networks?
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Recent research has shown that many mutualistic communities display non-random structures. While our understanding of the structural properties of mutualistic communities continues to improve, we know little of the biological variables resulting in them. Mutualistic communities include those formed between ants and extrafloral (EF) nectar-bearing plants. In this study, we examined the contributions of plant and ant abundance, plant and ant size, and plant EF nectar resources to the network structures of nestedness and interaction frequency of ant–plant networks across five sites within one geographic locality in the Sonoran Desert. Interactions between ant and plant species were largely symmetric. That is, ant and plant species exerted nearly equivalent quantitative interaction effects on one another, as measured by their frequency of interaction. The mutualistic ant–plant networks also showed nested patterns of structure, in which there was a central core of generalist ant and plant species interacting with one another and few specialist–specialist interactions. Abundance and plant size and ant body size were the best predictors of symmetric interactions between plants and ants, as well as nestedness. Despite interactions in these communities being ultimately mediated by EF nectar resources, the number of EF nectaries had a relatively weak ability to explain variation in symmetric interactions and nestedness. These results suggest that different mechanisms may contribute to structure of bipartite networks. Moreover, our results for ant–plant mutualistic networks support the general importance of species abundances for the structure of species interactions within biological communities.
KeywordsAnt–plant interaction Interaction frequency Community structure Ecological network Nestedness
We thank Darrell Tersey for facilitating research in Ironwood Forest National Monument, and Zhenhao Liu for assistance with field work. Suggestions of Martina Stang, Steve Johnson, Diego Vázquez, and an anonymous reviewer greatly improved an earlier version of this manuscript. This study complies with current laws of the USA. J.R.K. was supported by DOE CSGF grant DE-FG02-97ER25308.
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