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Spatial Patterns of Grass Seedling Recruitment Imply Predation and Facilitation by Harvester Ants

N. Nicolai, R. A. Feagin, F. E. Smeins
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1603/EN09166 127-133 First published online: 1 February 2010


Extended drought on the Edwards Plateau, TX, causes high mortality in grass species’ populations and their replacement by recruitment from the seeds of survivors. Harvester ant nests may act as refugia for perennial plants during drought, as evidenced by a high survivorship of plants directly adjacent to nests. Because grasses tend to disperse seeds short distances and drought eliminated seed banks, we hypothesized that the spatial pattern of grass seedlings and adults would be clumped at small scales around these refugia. In contrast, nests would be regular at small to moderate scales. We studied the spatial patterns of seedlings, adults, and ant nest locations using a modified Ripley’s K-function technique for transect data. Point data were collected along a 1-km transect. Spatially regular patterns were found for nests from 1.0- to 22.0-m scales. We found that two species’ seedlings and adults were significantly clumped with ant nests, and two species had significantly regular spatial patterns with nests. Surprisingly, patterns of clumped seedlings occurred up to 30-m scales with nests. Nests appear to affect seedling establishment at multiple scales. These results suggest that nests may facilitate colonization for some grass populations, but regular spatial patterns in other species imply that forager seed harvest may inhibit establishment.

  • ant nest–seedling spatial relationship
  • grassland spatial structure
  • Pogonomyrmex barbatus
  • Ripley’s K function
  • seedling establishment
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