Walter R. Tschinkel, Tyler Murdock, Joshua R. King, Christina Kwapich
Journal of Insect Science 12 (114), 1-20, (1 October 2012) https://doi.org/10.1673/031.012.11401
KEYWORDS: ant abundance, ant ecology, community ecology, Formicidae, shading, soil moisture, soil profiles, vegetation
Longleaf pine savannas are one of the most threatened ecosystems in the world, yet are understudied. Ants are a functionally important and diverse group of insects in these ecosystems. It is largely unknown how local patterns of species diversity and composition are determined through the interaction of this dominant animal group with abiotic features of longleaf pine ecosystems. Here we describe how an important abiotic variable, depth to water table, relates to ant species distributions at local scales. Pitfall trapping studies across habitat gradients in the Florida coastal plains longleaf pine flatwoods showed that the ant community changed with mild differences in habitat. In this undulating landscape, elevation differences were less than 2 m, and the depth to the water table ranged from < 20 cm to 1.2 m. The plant species composing the ground cover were zoned in response to depth to water, and shading by canopy trees increased over deeper water tables. Of the 27 ant species that were analyzed, depending on the statistical test, seven or eight were significantly more abundant over a deep water table, eight to ten over a shallow one, and nine to eleven were not significantly patterned with respect to depth to water. Ant species preferring sites with shallow groundwater also preferred the shadier parts of the sites, while those preferring sites with deeper groundwater preferred the sunnier parts of the sites. This suggests that one group of species prefers hot-dry conditions, and the other cooler-moist. Factor analysis and abundance-weighted mean site characteristics generally confirmed these results. These results show that ant communities in this region respond to subtle differences in habitat, but whether these differences arise from founding preferences, survival, competition, or some combination of these is not known.