Resilient Networks of Ant-Plant Mutualists in Amazonian Forest Fragments


Background: The organization of networks of interacting species, such as plants and animals engaged in mutualisms, strongly influences the ecology and evolution of partner communities. Habitat fragmentation is a globally pervasive form of spatial heterogeneity that could profoundly impact the structure of mutualist networks. This is particularly true for biodiversity-rich tropical ecosystems, where the majority of plant species depend on mutualisms with animals and it is thought that changes in the structure of mutualist networks could lead to cascades of extinctions. Methodology/Principal Findings: We evaluated effects of fragmentation on mutualistic networks by calculating metrics of network structure for ant-plant networks in continuous Amazonian forests with those in forest fragments. We hypothesized that networks in fragments would have fewer species and higher connectance, but equal nestedness and resilience compared to forest networks. Only one of the nine metrics we compared differed between continuous forest and forest fragments, indicating that networks were resistant to the biotic and abiotic changes that accompany fragmentation. This is partially the result of the loss of only specialist species with one connection that were lost in forest fragments. Conclusions/Significance: We found that the networks of ant-plant mutualists in twenty-five year old fragments are similar to those in continuous forest, suggesting these interactions are resistant to the detrimental changes associated with habitat fragmentation, at least in landscapes that are a mosaic of fragments, regenerating forests, and pastures. However, ant-plant mutualistic networks may have several properties that may promote their persistence in fragmented landscapes. Proactive identification of key mutualist partners may be necessary to focus conservation efforts on the interactions that insure the integrity of network structure and the ecosystems services networks provide.

Plos One, (7), 8