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Harvester ant seed removal in an invaded sagebrush ecosystem: Implications for restoration

October 29, 2020

A better understanding of seed movement in plant community dynamics is needed, especially in light of disturbance‐driven changes and investments into restoring degraded plant communities. A primary agent of change within the sagebrush‐steppe is wildfire and invasion by non‐native forbs and grasses, primarily cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum). Our objectives were to quantify seed removal and evaluate ecological factors influencing seed removal within degraded sagebrush‐steppe by granivorous Owyhee harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex salinus Olsen). In 2014, we sampled 76 harvester ant nests across 11 plots spanning a gradient of cheatgrass invasion (40%–91% cover) in southwestern Idaho, United States. We presented seeds from four plant species commonly used in postfire restoration at 1.5 and 3.0 m from each nest to quantify seed removal. We evaluated seed selection for presented species, monthly removal, and whether biotic and abiotic factors (e.g., distance to nearest nest, temperature) influenced seed removal. Our top model indicated seed removal was positively correlated with nest height, an indicator of colony size. Distance to seeds and cheatgrass canopy cover reduced seed removal, likely due to increased search and handling time. Harvester ants were selective, removing Indian ricegrass (Achnatherum hymenoides) more than any other species presented. We suspect this was due to ease of seed handling and low weight variability. Nest density influenced monthly seed removal, as we estimated monthly removal of 1,890 seeds for 0.25 ha plots with 1 nest and 29,850 seeds for plots with 15 nests. Applying monthly seed removal to historical restoration treatments across the western United States showed harvester ants can greatly reduce seed availability at degraded sagebrush sites; for instance, fourwing saltbush (Atriplex canescens) seeds could be removed in <2 months. Collectively, these results shed light on seed removal by harvester ants and emphasize their potential influence on postfire restoration within invaded sagebrush communities.

Publication Year 2020
Title Harvester ant seed removal in an invaded sagebrush ecosystem: Implications for restoration
DOI 10.1002/ece3.6963
Authors Kelsey E Paolini, Matthew Modlin, Alexis A Suazo, David Pilliod, Robert Arkle, Kerri T. Vierling, Joseph D. Holbrook
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecology and Evolution
Index ID 70215981
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center