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Changes in landuse alter ant diversity, assemblage composition and dominant functional groups in African savannas

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Abstract

Africa’s savannas are undergoing rapid conversion from rangelands into villages and croplands. Despite limited research, and evidence of deleterious effects to biodiversity, international organisations have earmarked this system for cropland. Invertebrates, and ants in particular, are sensitive indicators of habitat fragmentation, and contribute to ecosystem services at a range of scales. We investigated how rangelands, villages and croplands differ in ant species and functional diversity, and assemblage composition. We sampled ants using pitfall traps at 42 sites (14 replicates each in rangeland, cropland, and village) in northern South African savannas. We investigated the impact of landuse, season, and multiple soil and vegetation habitat variables on ant species diversity, assemblages and functional diversity. Rangelands had the greatest ant species richness, particularly in the wet season. Richness declined with increasing soil clay content. Ant assemblages were distinctly different between landuse types. Rangeland harboured the widest diversity of indicator species, and contained greatest functional diversity. Rangelands accommodated more scavengers, granivores, and plant-matter feeders than cropland, and representation of these groups varied with season. Ants play essential roles in soil nutrient cycling, plant and seedling recruitment, and impact other arthropods through predation and aphidoculous behaviour that in turn influences entire food webs. Thus, the reduced species richness, changes in assemblage composition and the loss of functional groups in ant assemblages found in cropland and villages is potentially problematic. Left unchallenged, these new forms of landuse threaten to characterise the entire African savanna system, impacting not only future ecological, but possibly also human wellbeing.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the National Research Foundation (NRF), and the Department of Science & Technology (DST) through the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) Chair on Biodiversity Value and Change in the Vhembe Biosphere Reserve, hosted and supported by the University of Venda. This project was supported by the German Federal Government, BMBF (SPACES programme: Limpopo Living Landscapes Project). Two anonymous reviewers and the handling editor provided constructive and useful criticism.

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Correspondence to Evans V. Mauda.

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Communicated by Akihiro Nakamura.

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Mauda, E.V., Joseph, G.S., Seymour, C.L. et al. Changes in landuse alter ant diversity, assemblage composition and dominant functional groups in African savannas. Biodivers Conserv 27, 947–965 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10531-017-1474-x

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