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Proc Biol Sci. 2008 Jun 22;275(1641):1431-40. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2008.0154.

Leaf-cutting ant nests near roads increase fitness of exotic plant species in natural protected areas.

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Laboratorio Ecotono, INIBIOMA-CONICET and Centro Regional Universitario Bariloche, Universidad Nacional del Comahue, 8400 Bariloche, Argentina.


Understanding the mechanisms that promote the invasion of natural protected areas by exotic plants is a central concern for ecology. We demonstrated that nests of the leaf-cutting ant, Acromyrmex lobicornis, near roadsides promote the abundance, growth and reproduction of two exotic plant species, Carduus nutans and Onopordum acanthium, in a national park in northern Patagonia, Argentina and determine the mechanisms that produce these effects. Refuse dumps (RDs) from ant nests have a higher nutrient content than nearby non-nest soils (NNSs); foliar nutrient content and their 15N isotopic signature strongly suggest that plants reach and use these nutrients. Both species of exotic plants in RDs were 50-600% more abundant; seedlings had 100-1000% more foliar area and root and leaf biomass; and adult plants produced 100-300% more seeds than nearby NNS plants. Plants can thus gain access to and benefit from the nutrient content of ant RD, supporting the hypotheses that enhanced resource availability promotes exotic plant performance that could increase the likelihood of biological invasions. The two exotics produce an estimated of 8385000 more seeds ha(-1) in areas with ant nests compared with areas without; this exceptional increase in seed production represents a potential threat to nearby non-invaded communities. We propose several management strategies to mitigate this threat. Removal efforts of exotics should be focused on ant RDs, where plants are denser and represent a higher source of propagules.

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