Research Article: Local and regional drivers of ant communities in forest-grassland ecotones in South Brazil: A taxonomic and phylogenetic approach

Date Published: April 11, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): William Dröse, Luciana Regina Podgaiski, Camila Fagundes Dias, Milton de Souza Mendonça, Frank H. Koch.


Understanding biological community distribution patterns and their drivers across different scales is one of the major goals of community ecology in a rapidly changing world. Considering natural forest-grassland ecotones distributed over the south Brazilian region we investigated how ant communities are assembled locally, i.e. considering different habitats, and regionally, i.e. considering different physiographic regions. We used taxonomic and phylogenetic approaches to investigate diversity patterns and search for environmental/spatial drivers at each scale. We sampled ants using honey and tuna baits in forest and grassland habitats, in ecotones distributed at nine sites in Rio Grande do Sul state, Brazil. Overall, we found 85 ant species belonging to 23 genera and six subfamilies. At the local scale, we found forests and grasslands as equivalent in ant species and evolutionary history diversities, but considerably different in terms of species composition. In forests, the soil surface air temperature predicts foraging ant diversity. In grasslands, while the height of herbaceous vegetation reduces ant diversity, treelet density from forest expansion processes clearly increases it. At a regional scale, we did not find models that sufficiently explained ant taxonomic and phylogenetic diversity based on regional environmental variables. The variance in species composition, but not in evolutionary histories, across physiographic regions is driven by space and historical processes. Our findings unveil important aspects of ant community ecology in natural transition systems, indicating environmental filtering as an important process structuring the communities at the local scale, but mostly spatial processes acting at the regional scale.

Partial Text

Ants are extremely abundant and ecologically important organisms widespread through ecosystems worldwide [1]. Several mechanisms shape ant distribution patterns such as environmental conditions (i.e. that filter species or lineages according to habitat requirements), species interactions, historical and geographical factors (i.e. affecting dispersal) [2]. Indeed, depending on the spatial scale considered ants might show different distribution patterns (e.g. [3,4]). For example, at smaller or local scales, microclimatic variation [5,6], soil and vegetation characteristics [7–9] and interspecific competition [10,11] usually act on community assembly. At broad or regional scales, climate variables [12,13], altitude [14,15], latitude [16–18] and dispersal limitation [19,20] may explain most of the patterns. All these predictors, acting in isolation or interacting, play roles in ant community diversity and distribution patterns of evolutionary lineages [2].

At a local scale, our study did not show differences in ant diversity between adjacent grasslands and forests, corroborating both Pinheiro et al. [31] and Klunk et al. [32] for South Brazil, even when more than one stratum (ground, leaf litter and arboreal) is considered (as discussed by Klunk et al. [32]). Overall, studies have showed open ecosystems such as grasslands/savannas harboring higher ant diversity than forests in ecotones or landscape mosaics, for many regions of the world (e.g. [76–78]). In Brazilian neotropical savannas this pattern also seems to occur, as showed by Camacho & Vasconcelos [79]. Mirroring the distinct forest and grassland plant communities, we found distinct ant communities in these habitats [76–78]. Despite short distances between sampling sites in different habitats (about 70 m), environmental filtering probably sort those species more adapted to or with a higher advantage when inhabiting each specific habitat [24]. We did not detect differences in ant phylogenetic composition between forest and grasslands, suggesting that no specific lineages evolved or have adapted to each environment in this region along its evolutionary history.

Our study unveils important aspects of ant community assembly and drivers in natural forest-grassland ecotones in South Brazil, considering taxonomic and phylogenetic perspectives, and may serve as a reference to other studies in these ecological transition systems worldwide. Here we showed that forests and grasslands are similar regarding ant diversity at ground level, but considerably different in terms of species composition (but not phylogenetic). In forests, the soil surface air temperature predicts foraging ant diversity. In grasslands, the height of herbaceous vegetation reduces ant diversity while treelet density from forest expansion processes clearly increases it. At a regional scale, space explained the most of the variance in species composition, and no environmental variables sufficiently explained ant diversity patterns at this scale. These results call for attention to the importance of these natural habitats and their biodiversity. All different habitat physiognomies from different regions of southern Brazil should warrant equally distributed conservation efforts to maximize biodiversity, but special care should be devoted to grasslands that are currently under major threat of conversion to other land use types.