Temporal patterns of nutrient availability around nests of leaf-cutting ants (Atta colombica) in secondary moist tropical forest
Leaf-cutting ants consume up to 10% of canopy leaves in the foraging area of their colony and therefore represent a key perturbation in the nutrient cycle of tropical forests. We used a chronosequence of nest sites on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, to assess the influence of leaf-cutting ants (Atta colombica) on nutrient availability in a neotropical rainforest. Twelve nest sites were sampled, including active nests, recently abandoned nests (1 year). Waste material discarded by the ants down-slope from the nests contained large concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus in both total and soluble forms, but decomposed within one year after the nests were abandoned. Despite this, soil under the waste material contained high concentrations of nitrate and ammonium that persisted after the disappearance of the waste, although soluble phosphate returned to background concentrations within one year of nest abandonment. Fine roots were more abundant in soil under waste than control soils up to one year after nest abandonment, but were not significantly different for older sites. In contrast to the waste dumps, soil above the underground nest chambers consistently contained lower nutrient concentrations than control soils, although this was not statistically significant. We conclude that the [`]islands of fertility' created by leaf-cutting ants provide a nutritional benefit to nearby plants for less than one year after nest abandonment in the moist tropical environment of Barro Colorado Island.
Citation: Hudson, Theresa M., Turner, Benjamin L., Herz, Hubert M. and Robinson, James S. 2009. Temporal patterns of nutrient availability around nests of leaf-cutting ants (Atta colombica) in secondary moist tropical forest. Soil Biology and Biochemistry, 41(6): 1088-1093. doi:10.1016/j.soilbio.2009.02.014