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Oecologia. 2001 Jun;128(1):99-106. doi: 10.1007/s004420100630. Epub 2001 Jun 1.

Prevalence and impact of a virulent parasite on a tripartite mutualism.

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Section of Integrative Biology, University of Texas at Austin, 78712, Austin, TX, USA.


The prevalence and impact of a specialized microfungal parasite (Escovopsis) that infects the fungus gardens of leaf-cutting ants was examined in the laboratory and in the field in Panama. Escovopsis is a common parasite of leaf-cutting ant colonies and is apparently more frequent in Acromyrmex spp. gardens than in gardens of the more phylogenetically derived genus Atta spp. In addition, larger colonies of Atta spp. appear to be less frequently infected with the parasite. In this study, the parasite Escovopsis had a major impact on the success of this mutualism among ants, fungi, and bacteria. Infected colonies had a significantly lower rate of fungus garden accumulation and produced substantially fewer workers. In addition, the extent of the reduction in colony growth rate depended on the isolate, with one isolate having a significantly larger impact than two others, suggesting that Escovopsis has different levels of virulence. Escovopsis is also spatially concentrated within parts of ant fungus gardens, with the younger regions having significantly lower rates of infection as compared to the older regions. The discovery that gardens of fungus-growing ants are host to a virulent pathogen that is not related to any of the three mutualists suggests that unrelated organisms may be important but primarily overlooked components of other mutualistic associations.


Escovopsis; Leaf-cutting ants; Mutualism; Parasitism; Symbiosis


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