Fires foster biological diversity on the African savanna

As an ecology student back in days of yore, I was introduced to the classic mutualism between ants and swollen-thorn acacia trees. In this mutually beneficial relationship, ants protect acacia trees by biting and projecting very smelly substances at hungry herbivores, and by pruning encroaching branches of plant competitors. In return for these services, acacia trees provide the ants with homes in the form of swollen thorns, and in some cases also provide food for their defenders.

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Swollen thorns of Acacia drepanlobium occupied by C. nigriceps. Credit: Ryan L. Sensenig.

I always assumed there were limits to what these ants could do. I knew that elephants were a constant problem for trees trying to get established on the African savanna. I figured, wrongly, that ants could not do much to counter a determined thick-skinned elephant. But as Ryan Sensenig describes, ants will swarm any intruding elephant, rushing into the elephant’s very sensitive trunk and mouth, biting it and, in some cases, exuding a chemical compound that is very offensive to an elephant’s keen sense of smell. So don’t mess with these ants if you can help it!

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The Laikipia Plateau has one of the few growing elephant populations in East Africa. Credit: Ryan L. Sensenig.

Fires play an important role in savanna ecosystems, killing many trees before they can get established, and creating a mosaic of burned and unburned areas which vary in grass quality and quantity, and in the abundance of acacia trees (and other species as well). Recently burned grasslands tend to be lower in grass abundance and higher in grass nutrient levels. In a previous study of controlled burns, Sensenig and his colleagues showed that larger animals, such as elephants, tended to graze in unburned areas, which had more grass – albeit of lower quality. Returning seven years after the burn, he was surprised to find that elephants, which eat both trees and grass, had shifted to the burned sites in preference to unburned sites. He thus wondered whether fire was having an impact on the ant-acacia mutualisms that defend acacias from elephants and other large herbivores.

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Sunset strikes an Acacia xanthophloea on Mpala Research Centre in Laikipia, Kenya. Credit: Ryan L. Sensenig.

Ants do not share trees. In Mpala Research Centre in the Laikipia Plateau of Kenya, there are four mutually-exclusive species of ants that live in Acacia drepanolobium trees: Crematogaster sjostedti, C. mimosae, C. nigriceps, and Tetraponera penzigi.

Sensenig and his colleagues wanted to know whether the controlled burns had a long-lasting effect on ant species distribution on acacia trees. The researchers surveyed 12 plots that had been burned seven years previously and an equal number of unburned plots to see how burns affected which ant species were present.

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Goshen College research students estimate ant densities on Acacia drepanolobium trees in the Kenya Longterm Exclosure Experiment. Credit: Ryan L. Sensenig.

They found that C. nigriceps was more common in acacias from burned areas while the other three species were more common in trees from unburned areas.

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Why were there more C. nigriceps ants in previously burned areas? One explanation is that perhaps C. nigriceps is better at avoiding getting burned by fire, or else is better at recolonizing after a fire. To look for species difference in response to fire, the researchers simulated fires by burning elephant dung and dried grass in 3-gallon metal buckets, creating a small sustained smoke source. They stationed observers every 50 meters along a 500 meter transect for the first experiment, and a 1.8 km transect for the second experiment. They then measured ant-evacuation rate by counting the number of ants moving down the trunk. There were some very pronounced differences, with C. nigriceps having the highest evacuation rate, C. mimosae also showing a strong smoke response, and the other two species showing little evidence of any response.

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Evacuation rate for each species in response to smoke.

C. mimosae generally prevails when it battles a colony of C. nigriceps. These results indicate that the subordinate C. nigriceps is able to maintain its presence in the community, in part, by taking advantage of its superior performance when it encounters a fire. The researchers also found some evidence that C. nigriceps is better at recolonizing after a fire than is C. mimosae. So despite being the subordinate species, C. nigriceps is abundant in this ecosystem.

Returning to those elephants, the researchers describe one final experiment in which some plots had a series of fences that excluded herbivores, while other plots were open to herbivores, including elephants.

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In this experiment, as well, there were burned and unburned plots. In general, there were more ants present when herbivores were present, as the trees invested more in swollen thorns and in ant food (in the form of nectar) to attract protective ants. In addition, ants were more abundant in unburned plots than in plots that had been previously burned, with the exception of C. nigriceps when herbivores were excluded.

Ecologists have long known that fire maintains savanna ecosystems by preventing the grasslands from being overgrown by trees. This study shows that fires shift ant community structure in favor of the subordinate ant species (C. nigriceps), resulting in a higher diversity of ant species overall. The researchers suggest that if fires become more common in savannas, elephants may become more attracted to acacias that harbor a reduced (or nonexistent) cast of defenders, which could lead to a further reduction in the abundance of acacia trees and their mutualistic ants.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Sensenig, R. L., Kimuyu, D. K., Ruiz Guajardo, J. C., Veblen, K. E., Riginos, C., & Young, T. P. (2017). Fire disturbance disrupts an acacia ant–plant mutualism in favor of a subordinate ant species. Ecology, 98(5), 1455-1464.Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2017 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.