African driver ants are nomadic social mesopredators feeding on a highly diverse array of prey species at different trophic levels. Colonies of certain driver ant species have a biomass which can equal that of medium-sized mammalian carnivores and the ultimate cause of their nomadic life-style is thought to be local prey depletion. The impact of driver ant swarm raids is therefore expected to be strong but the degree to which they reduce prey populations has not been quantified and it is unknown whether these spectacular predators exert significant top-down effects. We examined the combined effect of driver ant (Dorylus molestus) and swarm-attending bird (Alethe poliocephala) predation on the population dynamics of earthworms, which constitute the ants’ main prey type in the montane forest of Mount Kenya. Pre-raid earthworm biomass densities in the soil layer down to a depth of 8 cm varied by a factor of 31. The immediate effect of swarm raids was a reduction in earthworm numbers in this layer, but 8 days later earthworm numbers had recovered to pre-raid levels. When earthworm biomass densities were compared, no significant effect of swarm raids was detected. The estimated proportion of earthworm prey biomass extracted from 0 to 8 cm layer by driver ants and birds together was about 2.2%. Although colony distribution was overdispersed as expected based on knowledge of D. molestus migratory behaviour, predation events were highly localized. Predation frequency was low (once every 62 days on average) and highly variable. These results indicate that earthworm prey is highly abundant but at the same time so difficult to harvest that swarm raids exert only a marginal influence on earthworm populations. Longer-term studies would be required to determine whether earthworm populations are limited by swarm raids. The small impacts of individual raids and rapid recovery of earthworm prey populations likely underlie the low frequency of migrations and short distances travelled by migrating colonies of D. molestus.
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We are grateful to Washington Njagi and Mwenda Tiraka for help during fieldwork and the Kenya Wildlife Service and the Kenyan Ministry of Education, Science and Technology for granting research permission. We thank Klaus Riech for preparing Fig. 1. C.S. wishes to thank Jacobus Boomsma and Eduard Linsenmair for fruitful discussions on the impact of driver ant predation on prey populations. Jon Fjeldså confirmed the ID of Alethe poliocephala based on pictures, and Titus Imboma kindly provided information on ecology of this bird. Two anonymous referees made useful suggestions that helped improve the manuscript. Financial support was provided by the Alexander von Humboldt-Foundation and the Danish National Research Foundation.
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Schöning, C., Csuzdi, C., Kinuthia, W. et al. Influence of driver ant swarm raids on earthworm prey densities in the Mount Kenya forest: implications for prey population dynamics and colony migrations. Insect. Soc. 57, 73–82 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00040-009-0052-y
- Ant-following birds
- Army ants
- Dorylus molestus