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Harvester ant response to spatial and temporal heterogeneity in seed availability: pattern in the process of granivory.

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal article

Published

Journal publication date11/2000
JournalOecologia
Journal number4
Volume125
Number of pages9
Pages495-503
Original languageEnglish

Abstract

The influence of temporal and spatial heterogeneity in seed availability on the foraging behaviour of the harvester ant Messor arenarius was studied in an arid shrubland in the Negev Desert, Israel. The study investigated the implications of behavioural responses to heterogeneity in seed availability for the seed predation process and the potential for feedback effects on vegetation. Vegetation and seed rain were monitored across two landscape patch types (shrub patches and inter-shrub patches) in 1997. Shrub patches were shown to have higher plant and seed-rain density than inter-shrub patches. Patch use and seed selection by M. arenarius foragers were monitored through the spring, summer and autumn of 1997. After a pulse of seed production in the spring, the ants exhibited very narrow diet breadth, specialising on a single annual grass species, Stipa capensis. At this time, ants were foraging and collecting seeds mainly from inter-shrub patches. In the summer, diet breadth broadened and use of shrub patches increased, although the rate of seed collection per unit area was approximately equal in the two patch types. The increase in the use of shrub patches was due to colony-level selection of foraging areas with relatively high shrub cover and an increase in the use of shrub patches by individual foragers. In the autumn, a pulse of seed production by the shrub species Atractylis serratuloides and Noaea mucronata led to a reduction in diet breadth as foragers specialised on these species. During this period, foragers exhibited a large increase in the proportion of time spent in shrub patches and in the proportion of food items collected from shrub patches. The seasonal patterns in foraging behaviour showed linked changes in seed selection and patch use resulting in important differences in the seed predation process between the two landscape patch types. For much of the study period, there was higher seed predation pressure on the inter-shrub patches, which were of relatively low productivity compared with the shrub patches. This suggests that the seed predation process may help maintain the spatial heterogeneity in the density of ephemeral plants in the landscape.