“The abundance of ants is legendary. A worker is less than one-millionth the size of a human being, yet ants taken collectively rival people as dominant organisms on the land. … When combined, all ants in the world taken together weigh about as much as all human beings.” – Journey to the Ants by Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson
Considering how abundant and widely distributed ants are, it is easy to imagine the profound role they might play in the ecosystems of which they are a part. In fact, in the epilogue to Hölldobler and Wilson’s popular book about ants (quoted above), they conclude that in a world without ants, “species extinction would increase even more over the present rate, and the land ecosystems would shrivel more rapidly as the considerable services provided by these insects were pulled away.” It is no doubt then that ants, through their myriad interactions with their surroundings, are key players in terrestrial ecosystems.
Harvester ants offer a prime example of the important roles that ants can play. In the process of collecting seeds for consumption, harvester ants can help shape the abundance and distribution of the plants in their immediate environment. They do this by selecting the types and amounts of seeds they collect, by abandoning seeds along their collection routes, and by leaving viable seeds to germinate in and around their nests. Hölldobler and Wilson have this to say about harvester ants:
[The] numerical success [of ants] has allowed them to alter not just their nest environments, but the entire habitats in which they live. Harvesting ants, species that regularly include seeds in their diet, have an especially high impact. They consume a large percentage of the seeds produced by plants of many kinds in nearly all terrestrial habitats, from dense tropical forests to deserts. Their influence is not wholly negative. The mistakes they make by losing seeds along the way also disperse plants and compensate at least in part for the damage caused by their predation.
There are more than 150 species of harvester ants, spanning at least 18 genera. They are found throughout the world (except extreme cold locales) and are particularly common in arid to semi-arid environments. Pogonomyrmex is one the largest genera of harvester ants with nearly 70 species occurring throughout North, Central, and South America. Messor is another large genus of harvester ant species that mainly occurs in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Both genera build large nests and move massive amounts of soil in the process.
Seed dispersal by harvester ants (also known as diszoochory) is a type of secondary (or Phase II) seed dispersal. It is a case of serendipity, as the dispersal occurs largely by accident. Some plants, on the other hand, have developed a mutualistic relationship with ants, enlisting them to disperse their seeds by way of an elaiosome – a fleshy, nutritious structure attached to seeds that attracts ants. Seeds with such structures are picked up by ants and brought to their nests where the elaiosome is consumed and the seed is left to germinate. This form of ant-mediated dispersal is called myrmecochory and is typically not carried out by harvester ants.
Harvester ant colonies have both direct and indirect influences on their surrounding environments; however, there is a dearth of research elucidating the exact details of such influences. A paper published in the Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics in 2000 by MacMahon et. al. reviewed available studies concerning harvester ants and explored our current understanding of the influences that harvester ants (particularly those in the genus Pogonomyrmex) can potentially have on community structure and ecosystem functions. Following are some of the direct influences the authors listed:
- Removal and consumption of seeds and other materials – The relative abundance of plant species can be affected by the selective removal of seeds. Harvester ants also collect leaves, twigs, pollen, flowers, vertebrate feces, and arthropod body parts.
- Storage and rejection of seeds – Collected seeds can be dropped during transport, rejected after arriving at the nest, or abandoned in nest granaries. All result in the transport of seeds away from the parent plant and dispersal beyond the plant’s primary dispersal mechanisms.
- Construction and maintenance of nests – All vegetation and debris is removed from the area immediately surrounding the nest including mature and emerging plants. This area is kept clear for the duration of the life of the colony and, in some cases, can be quite extensive.
Harvester ants can also influence soil properties and soil food webs within and in the vicinity of their nests. They bring large amounts of organic matter down into the soil and redistribute vast amounts of soil particles. Their actions also influence the amount of moisture in the soil surrounding their nests.
This is a mere distillation of the influences that harvester ants might have; see the paper by MacMahon et al. to learn more.
In an effort to better understand how the seed predation and seed dispersal behaviors of harvester ants might influence plant population dynamics, a research team in Spain used data obtained from field research to build a computer model that would predict changes over time. The study site was described as “open and heterogeneous shrubland” and the vegetation was stated to be in “a very early stage in the secondary succession” after being subject to “recurring fires.” The harvester ant colonies involved in the study consisted of three species in the genus Messor. The plant species selected for the study were three native shrubs whose seeds were known to be collected by the harvester ants. Each plant species differed slightly in the amount and size of seeds it produced and in its primary seed dispersal mechanism, which is important because the researchers hypothesized that “the effect of seed predation and seed dispersal may depend on plant attributes.”
Data obtained from simulated scenarios and field observations appeared to support this hypothesis; each shrub species interacted differently with the harvester ants. Coronilla minima benefited from “accidental” seed dispersal. Comparatively, it produces a high amount of large seeds, which are primarily dispersed by gravity. Despite predation, ant-mediated dispersal was an advantage. Dorycnium pentaphyllum produced the highest amount of seeds among the three shrub species; however, seed predation was found to have negative effects on its population dynamics. Its primary seed dispersal mechanism involves ballistics (the mechanical ejection of its seeds), so ant-mediated dispersal may not offer an advantage. Finally, Fumana ericoides, despite its limited primary seed dispersal and its comparatively low production of seeds was not affected by the actions of the harvester ants. The authors concluded that “some unknown factor is driving the population dynamics of this species, more than the action of ants.”
Studies such as this, while leaving many unanswered questions, help us understand the important role that harvester ants play in our world. Harvester ants, and ants in general, are truly among Earth’s most enthralling and influential creatures. Learn more about their complex behaviors and countless interactions with flora and fauna by checking out these three documentaries recommended by ANTfinity.