Long-term temporal variation in the organization of an ant–plant network

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Abstract

Background and Aims

Functional groups of species interact and coevolve in space and time, forming complex networks of interacting species. A long-term study of temporal variation of an ant–plant network is presented with the aims of: (1) depicting its structural changes over a 20-year period; (2) detailing temporal variation in network topology, as revealed by nestedness and modularity analysis and other parameters (i.e. connectance, niche overlap); and (3) identifying long-term turnover in taxonomic structure (i.e. switches in ant resource use or plant visitor assemblages according to taxa).

Methods

Fieldwork was carried out at La Mancha, Mexico, and ant–plant interactions were observed between 1989 and 1991, between 1998 and 2000, and between May 2010 and 2011. Occurrences of ants on extrafloral nectaries (EFNs) were recorded. The resulting ant–plant networks were constructed from qualitative presence–absence data determined by a species–species matrix defined by the frequency of occurrence of each pairwise ant–plant interaction.

Key Results

Network variation across time was stable and a persistent nested structure may have contributed to the maintenance of resilient and species-rich communities. Modularity was lower than expected, especially in the most recent networks, indicating that the community exhibited high overlap among interacting species (e.g. few species were hubs in the more recent network, being partly responsible for the nested pattern). Structurally, the connections created among modules by super-generalists gave cohesion to subsets of species that otherwise would remain unconnected. This may have allowed an increasing cascade-effect of evolutionary events among modules. Mutualistic ant–plant interactions were structured 20 years ago mainly by the subdominant nectarivorous ant species Camponotus planatus and Crematogaster brevispinosa, which monopolized the best extrafloral nectar resources and out-competed other species with broader feeding habits. Through time, these ants, which are still present, lost their position as network hubs and diminished in their importance in structuring the network; simultaneously, plants gained in importance.

Conclusions

The long-term network analysis reveals a decrease in attended plant species richness, a notable increase in plant species participation from 1990 to 2010 (sustained by less plant taxonomic similarity in the older 1990 network), an increase in the number of ant species and a diminishing dominance of super-generalist ants. The structure of the community has remained highly nested and connected with low modularity, suggesting overall a more participative, homogeneous, cohesive interaction network. Although previous studies have suggested that interactions between ants and EFN-bearing plants are susceptible to seasonality, abiotic factors and perturbation, this cohesive structure appears to be the key for biodiversity and community maintenance.

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