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Ecosystem engineering of harvester ants: Effects on vegetation in a sagebrush-steppe ecosystem

May 18, 2016

Harvester ants are influential in many ecosystems because they distribute and consume seeds, remove vegetation, and redistribute soil particles and nutrients. Understanding the interaction between harvester ants and plant communities is important for management and restoration efforts, particularly in systems altered by fire and invasive species such as the sagebrush-steppe. Our objective was to evaluate how vegetation cover changed as a function of distance from Owyhee harvester ant (Pogonomyrmex salinus) nests within a sagebrush-steppe ecosystem. We sampled 105 harvester ant nests within southern Idaho, USA, that occurred in different habitats: annual grassland, perennial grassland, and native shrubland. The influence of Owyhee harvester ants on vegetation was larger at the edge of ant nests, but the relationship was inconsistent among plant species. Percent cover was positively associated with distance from harvester ant nests for plant species that were considered undesirable food sources and were densely distributed. However, percent cover was negatively associated with distance-from-nests for patchily distributed and desirable plant species. For some plant species, there was no change in cover associated with distance-from-nests. Total vegetation cover was associated with distance-from-nests in the shrubland habitat but not in the 2 grasslands. The dominant plant species in the shrubland habitat was a densely distributed shrub (winterfat, Krascheninnikovia lanata) that was defoliated by harvester ants. Our results suggest that Owyhee harvester ants increase spatial heterogeneity in plant communities through plant clearing, but the direction and magnitude of effect will likely be contingent on the dominant vegetation groups. This information may inform future management and plant restoration efforts in sagebrush-steppe by directly considering the islands of influence associated with harvester ant engineering.

Publication Year 2016
Title Ecosystem engineering of harvester ants: Effects on vegetation in a sagebrush-steppe ecosystem
DOI 10.3398/064.076.0109
Authors Elyce Gosselin, Joseph D. Holbrook, Katey Huggler, Emily Brown, Kerri T. Vierling, Robert Arkle, David S. Pilliod
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Western North American Naturalist
Index ID 70171048
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center