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201807Feb09:39

Even small changes within an ecosys­tem can have detri­men­tal effects on a larger scale

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pub­lished 07 Feb­ru­ary 2018 | mod­i­fied 07 Feb­ru­ary 2018
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Inter­ac­tions between small organ­isms are ‘key­stone’ inter­ac­tions that scale up to shape whole ecosystems.

Ants tending scales credit Kirsten PriorA mutu­al­is­tic rela­tion­ship between species in an ecosys­tem allows for the ecosys­tem to thrive, but the lack of this rela­tion­ship could lead to the col­lapse of the entire sys­tem. New research from Bing­ham­ton Uni­ver­sity, State Uni­ver­sity of New York reveals that inter­ac­tions between rel­a­tively small organ­isms are cru­cial to mutu­al­is­tic rela­tion­ships in an ecosys­tem dom­i­nated by much larger organ­isms, includ­ing trees and elephants.

Bing­ham­ton Uni­ver­sity Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Bio­log­i­cal Sci­ences Kirsten Prior, along with Todd Palmer from the Uni­ver­sity of Florida, stud­ied the sym­bi­otic inter­ac­tion between the whistling thorn aca­cia tree (the dom­i­nant tree in the East African savan­nah) and the ants that inhabit them. The ants ben­e­fit from the tree by get­ting hous­ing and sugar-​rich nec­tar, and the tree ben­e­fits because the ants pro­tect it from large her­bi­vores such as ele­phants. Using obser­va­tional stud­ies and exper­i­ments, the researchers dis­cov­ered that a third part­ner, scale insects, are the most impor­tant resource affect­ing ant colony size and activ­ity, as well as their effec­tive defence against preda­tors. The hon­ey­dew pro­duced by the insects is a con­sis­tent source of sugar for the ants, pro­vid­ing them with a source of nutri­ents dur­ing pro­longed dry sea­sons when nec­tar from the tree is scarce. The study results are pub­lished on 12 Jan­u­ary in the jour­nal Ecol­ogy.

A mutu­al­is­tic rela­tion­ship between species in an ecosys­tem allows for the ecosys­tem to thrive, but the lack of this rela­tion­ship could lead to the col­lapse of the entire sys­tem. New research from Bing­ham­ton Uni­ver­sity, State Uni­ver­sity of New York reveals that inter­ac­tions between rel­a­tively small organ­isms are cru­cial to mutu­al­is­tic rela­tion­ships in an ecosys­tem dom­i­nated by much larger organ­isms, includ­ing trees and elephants:


(Credit: Bing­ham­ton Uni­ver­sity, State Uni­ver­sity of New York)

While this ant-​plant mutu­al­is­tic inter­ac­tion has been well-​studied, our research showed that this key­stone inter­ac­tion is even more intri­cate than pre­vi­ously thought,” said Prior. “We learned that the mutu­al­ism involves a third player: a species of scale insect that feeds on the tree sap and pro­duces an excre­ment called hon­ey­dew, on which the ants also feed, and makes the ants a stronger mutualist.”

Mutu­al­ism pro­vides vital inter­ac­tions between organ­isms in shap­ing the ecosys­tems, said Prior. “The aca­cia tree pro­vides both food and hous­ing for ants, whereas the ants deter large her­bi­vores, pri­mar­ily ele­phants, by deliv­er­ing painful bites. This mutu­al­ism is a key­stone inter­ac­tion, since remov­ing the ants that ward off ele­phants from the tree causes a shift in the ecosys­tem. Remov­ing the scale insects also has a neg­a­tive impact, as the tree is unable to pro­duce as much food that the ants need.”

Prior plans to con­tinue her research fur­ther into how com­plex inter­ac­tions between sym­bi­otic species shape ecosys­tems and how global change can also have a sig­nif­i­cant impact on alter­ing these impor­tant interactions.

(Source: Bing­ham­ton Uni­ver­sity news release via EurekAlert!, 01.02.2018)


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