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Long-Term Data on Ants Reveal Forest Dynamics

Monday, April 9, 2018
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Sydne Record with Summer Student Collecting Ants

When forests change, do the resident ants change, too?  Ecologists Sydne Record (Bryn Mawr), Aaron Ellison (HF), Tempest McCabe (HF 2015 Summer Student, now at Boston University), and Ben Baiser (University of Florida Gainesville) answer this question in a new paper in the journal Ecosphere

Ants provide many different services to forests: they aerate soils, decompose wood, and disperse seeds. However, these services depend on the community diversity of ants. HF scientists wondered if the death of trees within a forest would change the number of species in that forest or the number of services the ant community provided.

To test this, they collected ants at two sites: one with oaks removed at the Black Rock Forest's Future of Oak Forests Experiment, and one with hemlocks removed at the Harvard Forest Hemlock Removal Experiment. Then for twelve years, they watched how ant community diversity changed compared to nearby oak and eastern hemlock forests that remained intact.

They found that the way the ant communities changed depended on the type of forest. When eastern hemlocks were lost, the ant community diversity changed, as did some of the services the ant community could provide. When oaks were lost, the ant community did not change in terms of species composition or the services that they provide to the forest ecosystem. These results support the hypothesis that eastern hemlock is a foundation species, which disproportionately defines ecosystem structure and dynamics.

The paper suggests that because eastern hemlock defines its ecosystem, removing eastern hemlocks has effects that cascade down to the ant level. Removing oaks from a forest has fewer effects.

Understanding how the loss of particular tree species will affect an ecosystem is essential for conservation efforts.

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