Benefits conferred by “timid” ants: active anti-herbivore protection of the rainforest tree Leonardoxa africana by the minute ant Petalomyrmex phylax
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In this study, we demonstrate that an important benefit provided by the small host-specific ant Petalomyrmex phylax to its host plant Leonardoxa africana is efficient protection against herbivores. We estimate that in the absence of ants, insect herbivory would reduce the leaf area by about one-third. This contributes considerably to the fitness of the plant. Our estimates take into account not only direct damage, such as removal of leaf surface by chewing insects, but also the effects of sucking insects on leaf growth and expansion. Sucking insects are numerically predominant in this system, and the hitherto cryptic effects of ant protection against the growth-reducing effects of sucking insects accounted for half of the total estimated benefit of ant protection. We propose that the small size of workers confers a distinct advantage in this system. Assuming that resource limitation implies a trade off between size and number of ants, and given the small size of phytophagous insects that attack Leonardoxa, we conclude that fine-grained patrolling by a large number of small workers maximises protection of young leaves of this plant. Since herbivores are small and must complete their development on the young leaves of Leonardoxa, and since a high patrolling density is required for a fine-grained search for these enemies, numerous small ants should provide the most effective protection of young leaves of Leonardoxa. We also discuss other factors that may have influenced worker size in this ant.
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