Strategic Management of an Invasive Ant-scale Mutualism Enables Recovery of a Threatened Tropical Tree Species



Mutualisms between invasive ants and honeydew-producing insects can have widespread negative effects on natural ecosystems. This is becoming an increasingly serious problem worldwide, causing certain ecosystems to change radically. Management of these abundant and influential mutualistic species is essential if the host ecosystem is to recover to its former non-invaded status. This negative effect is particularly prevalent on some tropical islands, including Cousine Island, Seychelles. On this island, the invasive ant Pheidole megacephala has caused serious indirect damage to the threatened native Pisonia grandis trees via a mutualism with an invasive scale insect, Pulvinaria urbicola. We aimed to suppress the ant, thereby decoupling the mutualism and enabling recovery of the Pisonia trees. We treated all areas where ant pressure was high with a selective formicidal bait, which was deployed in custom-made bait stations designed to avoid risk of treatment to endemic fauna. In the treated area, ant foraging activity was reduced by 93 percent and was followed by a 100 percent reduction in scale insect density. Abundance of endemic herbivorous insects and herbivorous activity increased significantly, however, after the decline in mutualistic species densities. Despite the native herbivore increase, there was considerable overall improvement in Pisonia shoot condition and an observed increase in foliage density. Our results demonstrate the benefit of strategic management of highly mutualistic alien species to the native Pisonia trees. It also supports the idea that area-wide suppression is a feasible alternative to eradication for achieving positive conservation management at the level of the forest ecosystem.