Elevation and forest clearing effects on foraging differ between surface – and subterranean – foraging army ants (Formicidae: Ecitoninae)
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- 1Forest fragmentation often results in a matrix of open areas mixed with patches of forest. Both biotic and abiotic factors can affect consumer species’ ability to utilize the altered habitat, especially for species that range over large areas searching for prey.
- 2Army ants (Formicidae: Ecitoninae) are highly mobile top predators in terrestrial Neotropical ecosystems. Army ant foraging behaviour is influenced by forest clearing at lowland sites, and clearing can reduce army ant population persistence.
- 3Because high temperatures are implicated in hindering above-ground army ant foraging, we predicted that forest clearing effects on army ant foraging would be reduced at higher (cooler) elevations in montane forest. We also predicted that subterranean foraging, employed by some army ant species, would buffer them from the negative effects of forest clearing.
- 4We quantified the foraging rates of above-ground and underground foraging army ants at eight sites along an elevational gradient from 1090 to 1540 m a.s.l. We asked whether these two foraging strategies cause a difference in the ability of army ants to forage in open matrix areas relative to elevationally matched forested habitats, and whether elevation predicts open area vs. forest foraging rate differences.
- 5As predicted, army ants that forage above-ground had lower foraging rates in open areas, but the open area vs. forest difference declined with elevation. In contrast, underground foragers were not affected by habitat type, and underground foraging rates increased with elevation. Ground surface temperatures were higher in open areas than forested areas. Temperatures declined with elevation, and temperature differences between open and forested areas decreased with elevation.
- 6We conclude that army ants that forage above-ground may be restricted to forested areas due to a thermal tolerance threshold, but that they are released from this limitation at higher elevations. We further suggest that underground foraging permits some army ants to persist within modified landscapes. Our findings have implications for the effects of habitat modification and climate change on these top predators.