Performance and fate of tree seedlings on and around nests of the leaf-cutting ant Atta cephalotes: Ecological filters in a fragmented forest



Habitat fragmentation is currently the most pervasive anthropogenic disturbance in tropical forests and some species of leaf-cutting ants of the genus Atta (dominant herbivores in the neotropics) have become hyper-abundant in forest edges where their nests directly impact up to 6% of the forest area. Yet, their impacts on the regeneration dynamics of fragmented forests remain poorly investigated. Here we examine the potential of Atta cephalotes nests to function as ecological filters impacting tree recruitment. Growth, survival and biomass partitioning of experimentally planted seedlings (six tree species) were examined at eight spatially independent A. cephalotes colonies in a large Atlantic Forest fragment. Seedling performance and fate (leaf numbers and damage) were monitored up to 27 months across three habitats (nest centre, nest edge and forest understorey). Plants at illuminated nest centres showed twice the gross leaf gain as understorey individuals. Simultaneously, seedlings of all species lost many more leaves at nests than in the forest understorey, causing a negative net leaf gain. Net leaf gain in the shaded understorey ranged from zero (Licania and Thyrsodium species) to substantial growth for Copaifera and Virola, and intermediate levels little above zero for Protium and Pouteria. Also seedling survival differed across habitats and species, being typically low in the centre and at the edge of nests where seedlings were often completely defoliated by the ants. Lastly, seedling survival increased strongly with seed size at nest edges while there was no such correlation in the forest. Our results suggest that Atta nests operate as ecological filters by creating a specific disturbance regime that differs from other disturbances in tropical forests. Apparently, Atta nests favour large-seeded tree species with resprouting abilities and the potential to profit from a moderate, nest-mediated increase in light availability.