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Small-scale disturbances spread along trophic chains: leaf-cutting ant nests, plants, aphids, and tending ants

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Small-scale disturbances caused by animals often modify soil resource availability and may also affect plant attributes. Changes in the phenotype of plants growing on disturbed, nutrient-enriched microsites may influence the distribution and abundance of associated insects. We evaluated how the high nutrient availability generated by leaf-cutting ant nests in a Patagonian desert steppe may spread along the trophic chain, affecting the phenotype of two thistle species, the abundance of a specialist aphid and the composition of the associated assemblage of tending ants. Plants of the thistle species Carduus nutans and Onopordum acanthium growing in piles of waste material generated by leaf-cutting ant nests (i.e., refuse dumps) had more leaves, inflorescences and higher foliar nitrogen content than those in non-nest soils. Overall, plants in refuse dumps showed higher abundance of aphids than plants in non-nest soils, and aphid colonies were of greater size on O. acanthium plants than on C. nutans plants. However, only C. nutans plants showed an increase in aphid abundance when growing on refuse dumps. This resulted in a similar aphid load in both thistle species when growing on refuse dumps. Accordingly, only C. nutans showed an increase in the number of ant species attending aphids when growing on refuse dumps. The increase of soil fertility generated by leaf-cutting ant nests can affect aphid abundance and their tending ant assemblage through its effect on plant size and quality. However, the propagation of small-scale soil disturbances through the trophic chain may depend on the identity of the species involved.

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This research was partially funded by PICT # 25314, Fondo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (FONCyT), Argentina.

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Correspondence to Alejandro G. Farji-Brener.

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Farji-Brener, A.G., Gianoli, E. & Molina-Montenegro, M.A. Small-scale disturbances spread along trophic chains: leaf-cutting ant nests, plants, aphids, and tending ants. Ecol Res 24, 139–145 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11284-008-0491-3

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  • Acromyrmex lobicornis
  • Ants
  • Aphid
  • Bottom-up effects
  • Fertilizer effect
  • Soil disturbances
  • Thistle
  • Trophic cascades