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The Argentine Ant Persists Through Unfavorable Winters Via a Mutualism Facilitated By a Native Tree

Robert J. Brightwell, Jules Silverman
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1603/EN11038 1019-1026 First published online: 1 October 2011

Abstract

Mutualisms and facilitations can fundamentally change the relationship between an organism's realized and fundamental niche. Invasive species may prove particularly suitable models for investigating this relationship as many are dependent on finding new partners for successful establishment. We conducted field-based experiments testing whether a native tree facilitates the successful survival of the invasive Argentine ant, Linepithema humile (Mayr), through unfavorable winter conditions in the southeastern United States. We found Argentine ant nests aggregated around the native loblolly pine, Pinus taeda L., during the winter months. The bark of this tree absorbed enough radiant solar energy to reach temperatures suitable for Argentine ant foraging even when ambient temperatures should have curtailed all foraging. Conversely, foraging ceased when the trunk was shaded. The sun-warmed bark of this tree gave the Argentine ant access to a stable honeydew resource. Argentine ants were not found on or near deciduous trees even though bark temperatures were warm enough to permit Argentine ant foraging on cold winter days. Augmenting deciduous trees with sucrose water through the winter months lead to Argentine ant nests remaining at their base and Argentine ants foraging on the tree. The Argentine ant requires both foraging opportunity and a reliable winter food source to survive through unfavorable winter conditions in the southeastern United States. The loblolly pine provided both of these requirements extending the realized niche of Argentine ants beyond its fundamental niche.

  • ants
  • habitat modification
  • invasive species
  • microclimate
  • niche expansion
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