Reduced benefits of ant occupation for ant-trees in oil palm compared with heavily logged forest

Abstract

Understanding interactions between species in altered ecosystems is important, as they influence resilience and opportunities for restoration. Here we explore a multipartite interaction between an important early succession myrmecophytic tree in Borneo (Macaranga pearsonii), and its ant mutualists that provide protection from herbivores. We compare the mutualistic system between two highly degraded habitats that are candidates for future restoration: oil palm plantation and recently heavily-logged forest. For each tree we measured tree structure (height, diameter, number of branches), leaf biomass and herbivore damage. We also measured soil characteristics (phosphate and nitrate content, pH, density) and canopy openness as these may influence tree health. For each branch, we quantified number of ant workers, brood, alates and queens as well as number of coccids. The ants tend these symbiotic coccids for their sugar-rich exudate produced by sucking the tree’s sap. We demonstrate that herbivore damage was up to twice as high in oil palm plantation compared to heavily-logged forest. This herbivory increase was not related directly to changes in abiotic conditions or to higher herbivore pressure, but rather to the distribution of the ant workers within the trees. However, trees in oil palm were able to compensate for the increased herbivory by increasing leaf production. For similar ant abundance, fewer branches were occupied in oil palm plantation, and there were relatively more ants in the presence of coccids. Taken together, our findings indicate that although this mutualism has variation in its functioning, with reduced benefits for the tree of ant occupation in oil palm plantation, the mutualism persists in oil palm. Therefore Macaranga pearsonii is a viable candidate for forest restoration (just as in secondary forest) if these trees are allowed to grow in oil palm plantations.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Sabah Biodiversity Council, Maliau Basin Management Committee, the South East Asian Rainforest Reseach Partnership, and the Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystems project for support with field work in Sabah. In particular, Dr. Glen Reynolds of SEARRP was of great assistance. A special thanks to Dr. Marion Pfeifer for providing satellite data through ESA Cat 1 Project 1373, and Dr. Sarah Luke for map forest cover layers. In addition to this, we are grateful to the great SAFE staff for making our stay a pleasurable experience and the research assistants for their efficiency. The two local student projects in relation to this project were supervised in collaboration with Dr. Kalsum Yusah at Universiti Malaysia Sabah. Thanks also to Nathan Thong for his work as a volunteer and Jana Liparova for assistance with fieldwork logistics. MH, DL and TMF were supported by a standard grant from the Czech Science Foundation (project 16-09427S), and the Bayerisch-Tschechische Hochschulagentur (BTHA), project BTHA-AP-2018-4 for supporting international collaboration. We pay special tribute to our co-author Dr. Brigitte Fiala; she was a leader in the Macaranga mutualism and collaborated enthusiastically on this project before sadly passing away before submission of this manuscript.

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Houadria, M.Y.I., Feldhaar, H., Fiala, B. et al. Reduced benefits of ant occupation for ant-trees in oil palm compared with heavily logged forest. Symbiosis 81, 79–91 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13199-020-00684-x

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Keywords

  • Myrmecophytism
  • Forest restoration
  • Coccids
  • Multipartite interactions
  • Macaranga
  • Crematogaster