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PLoS One. 2012;7(9):e45508. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0045508. Epub 2012 Sep 20.

Ecological complexity in a coffee agroecosystem: spatial heterogeneity, population persistence and biological control.

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Department of Entomology, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI, USA.



Spatial heterogeneity is essential for the persistence of many inherently unstable systems such as predator-prey and parasitoid-host interactions. Since biological interactions themselves can create heterogeneity in space, the heterogeneity necessary for the persistence of an unstable system could be the result of local interactions involving elements of the unstable system itself.


Here we report on a predatory ladybird beetle whose natural history suggests that the beetle requires the patchy distribution of the mutualism between its prey, the green coffee scale, and the arboreal ant, Azteca instabilis. Based on known ecological interactions and the natural history of the system, we constructed a spatially-explicit model and showed that the clustered spatial pattern of ant nests facilitates the persistence of the beetle populations. Furthermore, we show that the dynamics of the beetle consuming the scale insects can cause the clustered distribution of the mutualistic ants in the first place.


From a theoretical point of view, our model represents a novel situation in which a predator indirectly causes a spatial pattern of an organism other than its prey, and in doing so facilitates its own persistence. From a practical point of view, it is noteworthy that one of the elements in the system is a persistent pest of coffee, an important world commodity. This pest, we argue, is kept within limits of control through a complex web of ecological interactions that involves the emergent spatial pattern.

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