Ants on swollen-thorn acacias: species coexistence in a simple system
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On the black cotton soils of the Laikipia ecosystem in Kenya, two swollen-thorn acacia species support nine ant species, four of which are apparently obligate plant-ants. Among the ants, there are five species of Crematogaster, two species of Camponotus, and one each of Tetraponera and Lepisota. Acacia drepanolobium is host to four ant species that are both common and mutually exclusive. These four ant species, and an additional non-exclusive ant species, tend to occur on trees of different sizes, implying a succession of ant occupants. Nonetheless, all four exclusive species occur in substantial proportions on trees of intermediate size. There is direct evidence that an early successional ant species (Tetraponera penzigi) is actively evicted by two late successional ant species in the genus Crematogaster. There was also some evidence of height differentiation among ant species resident on A. seyal. Different acacia-ant species had different direct effects on A. drepanolobium. Extrafloral nectaries were eaten and destroyed only on trees inhabited by Tetraponera. Axillary shoots were eaten only on trees inhabited by C. nigriceps (potentially another early successional ant). This was associated with more new terminal shoots and healthier leaves than other trees, but also the virtual elimination of flowering and fruiting. Different resident acacia-ant species also had characteristic relationships with other insects. Among the four mutually exclusive ant species, only Crematogaster sjostedti was associated with two species of Camponotus, at least one of which (C. rufoglaucus) appears to be a foraging non-resident. A. drepanolobium trees occupied by C. sjostedti were also far more heavily infested with leaf galls than were trees occupied by other ant species. A. drepanolobium trees occupied by C. mimosae and C. sjostedti uniquely had tended adult scale insects. This diversity of ant inhabitants, and their strikingly different relationships with their hosts and other insect species, are examples of coexisting diversity on an apparently uniform resource.
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