Leaf-cutting ant preferences for five native tropical plantation tree species growing under different light conditions



To examine the susceptibility of five Costa Rican tree species to leaf-cutter ants (Atta cephalotes L.: Formicidae, Attini), young and mature leaves from trees that were grown in a plantation under full sun and partial shade were offered to six leaf-cutter colonies located in full sun and six in partial shade. In addition to offering leaf disks to the ants, we offered large pieces of leaves to assess the effect of cutting leaves on food choices. Leaf-cutters responded differently to each plant species, preferring Virola koschyni Warburg (Myristicaceae) and Hyeronima alchorneoides Allemao (Euphorbiaceae) over Stryphnodendrum microstachyum Poeppig & Endlicher (Mimosoideae), Pentaclethra macroloba Willdenow (Fabaceae) and Vochysia ferruginea Martius (Vochysiaceae). In agreement with previous studies, interspecific differences among the tree species in water and saponin content appeared to account for the observed ant preferences among the five tree species: leaf-cutter ants preferred leaves and disks with more water and less saponins and the five tree species varied significantly in these traits. An observed positive correlation between preference and phenolic/nitrogen ratio appears to be spurious, and is instead due to a negative correlation between water content and nitrogen content. For the first time, Atta nest location has been shown to affect consumption: nests located in partial shade removed more leaf material than those from the sun plots. However, nest location had no effect on preference ranking of the tree species tested. Pieces of leaves from all the tree species grown in partial shade were significantly more removed than those trees grown in full sun. Leaf age, toughness, leaf specific weights, ant activity, and colony were not correlated with food choices. Because of the observed preferences, the five tree species should not be considered as equal candidates for plantation purposes. However, complete characterization of the candidate status of tree species for plantations in the neotropics must include information on the ability of such species to tolerate pest attacks in addition to their natural defenses to attack.