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Limited niche differentiation within remarkable co-occurrences of congeneric species: Monomorium ants in the Australian seasonal tropics

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Abstract

Niche theory predicts that few closely related species can co-occur because such species tend to be ecologically similar and niche differentiation is required to avoid competitive exclusion. We analyse the co-occurrence of a remarkable 10–15 species of the ant genus Monomorium occurring within single 10 × 10 m plots in a tropical savanna of northern Australia. Most of the species are undescribed, so we use genetic analysis to validate our species demarcations. We document nest dispersion patterns, and investigate differentiation in the three primary niche dimensions: space, time and food. We also examine species differences in competitive abilities, by describing rates of foraging activity, foraging ranges, worker aggression, and levels of behavioural dominance. Analyses of nest and forager distributions showed very limited evidence of spatial segregation within plots. The great majority of species foraged either exclusively or primarily during daylight hours. Body size and isotopic analyses indicated very limited dietary differentiation. Such limited niche partitioning occurred despite the species differing markedly in their competitive abilities as measured by rates of resource discovery, recruitment and monopolization. Our findings defy the traditional assumption that multiple closely related and ecologically similar species of highly interactive taxa cannot co-occur. It seems very likely that species coexistence in our study system is determined to a very large degree by stochastic processes relating to dispersal and establishment, as predicted by neutral theory. However, neutral theory assumes competitive equivalence, whereas we found very marked differences in the competitive abilities of our co-occurring species. We suggest that competitive exclusion is prevented by the modular nature of ant colonies, with competition limiting colony performance but not preventing occurrence. We conclude that other factors that allow species persistence, and not just competitive equivalence, can allow dispersal and establishment processes to drive species coexistence.

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