Connectivity explains local ant community structure in a Neotropical forest canopy: A large‐scale experimental approach.
Adams, B. J., Schnitzer, S. A., & Yanoviak, S. P.
Understanding how habitat structure and resource availability affect local species distributions is a key goal of community ecology. Where habitats occur as a mosaic, variation in connectivity among patches influences both local species richness and composition, and connectivity is a key conservation concern in fragmented landscapes. Similarly, availability of limiting resources frequently determines species coexistence or exclusion. For primarily cursorial arthropods like ants, gaps between neighboring trees are a significant barrier to movement through the forest canopy. Competition for limited resources such as nest sites also promotes antagonistic interactions. Lianas (woody vines) connect normally isolated neighboring tree crowns and often have hollow stems inhabited by ants. We used two large‐scale liana‐removal experiments to determine how connectivity and nest site availability provided by lianas affect arboreal ant species richness, species composition, and β‐diversity in a lowland tropical forest in Panama. Removing lianas from a tree crown reduced ant species richness up to 35%, and disproportionately affected species that require large foraging areas. Adding artificial connectivity to trees mitigated the effects of liana removal. Ant colonization of artificial nests was higher (73% occupied) in trees without lianas vs. trees with lianas (28% occupied). However, artificial nests typically were colonized by existing polydomous, resident ant species. As a result, nest addition did not affect ant community structure. Collectively, these results indicate that lianas are important to the maintenance of arboreal ant diversity specifically by providing connectivity among neighboring tree crowns. Anticipated increases in liana abundance in this forest could increase the local (tree‐level) species richness of arboreal ants, with a compositional bias toward elevating the density of broad‐ranging specialist predators.