Mutualism fails when climate response differs between interacting species



Successful species interactions require that both partners share a similar cue. For many species, spring warming acts as a shared signal to synchronize mutualist behaviors. Spring flowering plants and the ants that disperse their seeds respond to warming temperatures so that ants forage when plants drop seeds. However, where warm-adapted ants replace cold-adapted ants, changes in this timing might leave early seeds stranded without a disperser. We investigate plant seed dispersal south and north of a distinct boundary between warm- and cold-adapted ants to determine if changes in the ant species influence local plant dispersal. The warm-adapted ants forage much later than the cold-adapted ants, and so we first assess natural populations of early and late blooming plants. We then transplant these plants south and north of the ant boundary to test whether distinct ant climate requirements disrupt the ant–plant mutualism. Whereas the early blooming plant's inability to synchronize with the warm-adapted ant leaves its populations clumped and patchy and its seedlings clustered around the parents in natural populations, when transplanted into the range of the cold-adapted ant, effective seed dispersal recovers. In contrast, the mutualism persists for the later blooming plant regardless of location because it sets seed later in spring when both warm- and cold-adapted ant species forage, resulting in effective seed dispersal. These results indicate that the climate response of species interactions, not just the species themselves, is integral in understanding ecological responses to a changing climate. Data linking phenological synchrony and dispersal are rare, and these results suggest a viable mechanism by which a species' range is limited more by biotic than abiotic interactions – despite the general assumption that biotic influences are buried within larger climate drivers. These results show that biotic partner can be as fundamental a niche requirement as abiotic resources.