The largest animal association centered on one species: the army ant Eciton burchellii and its more than 300 associates

Abstract

As possibly two of the last true naturalists, Carl Rettenmeyer and his wife Marian dedicated their lives to the study of army ants and their associates. Over the course of 55 years, the Rettenmeyers went on numerous field trips mainly to the Central American tropics and analyzed hundreds of self-collected samples and those sent by a multitude of other scientists, who were inspired by Carl’s enthusiasm. It comes as no surprise that Carl Rettenmeyer became the world’s leading expert on army ant associates. This paper, which the Rettenmeyers nearly completed before Carl’s death in 2009, gives the first comprehensive list of animals known to be found in the company of a single army ant species: Eciton burchellii. The 557 recorded associates range from birds to insects and mites and comprise the largest described animal association centering around one particular species. Although some of these associates may be opportunistic encounters, we are confident that approximately 300 of the recorded species depend on the ants, at least in part, for their existence. The extinction of E. burchellii from any habitat over its vast area of distribution is likely to cause the extinction of numerous associated animals at that site. This overview will hopefully inspire researchers throughout the world to follow in the Rettenmeyers’ footsteps and continue the investigation of army ants and their associates.

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Acknowledgments

We are grateful for the help of numerous field assistants and students aiding in the collection and sorting of army ants and their associates. Naming all of them would go beyond the scope of this paper. Our special thanks go to the following taxonomists for identifying and/or describing E. burchellii associates: Sidney Camras, Henry Disney, Ernst Ebermann, Richard Elzinga, David Kistner, Sandor Mahunka, Lubomir Masner, and Alexy Tishechkin. We would also like to thank Charlene and Adam Fuller for many hours spent in the field gathering information about E. burchellii and their associates and Adam for photographing and identifying antbirds. We thank Daniel Kronauer for comments on an earlier draft of this paper and for the permission to use some of his photographs as illustrations. Last but not least, we thank Phillip DeVries (Lepidoptera) and Henry Disney (Phoridae) for checking and adding to the respective tables. This work was supported by the British Ecological Society (SEPG 39/39), the Carl and Marian Rettenmeyer Ant-Guest Collection Endowment of the University of Connecticut, the Leverhulme Trust (F/00 182/AI), the Smithsonian Institution (SRA), the State Museum of Natural History Stuttgart, and the National Science Foundation. We thank the Asa Wright Nature Centre (Trinidad), the Estación Biologica de Monteverde (Costa Rica), the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) (Costa Rica), the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) (Panama), and the Summer Institute of Linguistics (Ecuador) for providing facilities and arranging collection and export permits. This work conforms to the legal requirements of the countries in which samples were collected.

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Correspondence to S. M. Berghoff.

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Rettenmeyer, C.W., Rettenmeyer, M.E., Joseph, J. et al. The largest animal association centered on one species: the army ant Eciton burchellii and its more than 300 associates. Insect. Soc. 58, 281–292 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00040-010-0128-8

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Keywords

  • Myrmecophiles
  • Ant guests
  • Symbiosis
  • Arthropods
  • Tropical ecology
  • Biodiversity