Defensive plant-ants stabilize megaherbivore-driven landscape change in an African savanna

Jacob R Goheen, Todd M Palmer
Current Biology: CB 2010 October 12, 20 (19): 1768-72
Tree cover in savanna ecosystems is usually regarded as unstable, varying with rainfall, fire, and herbivory. In sub-Saharan Africa, elephants (Loxodonta africana) suppress tree cover, thereby maintaining landscape heterogeneity by promoting tree-grass coexistence. In the absence of elephants, tree encroachment may convert savannas into closed-canopy woodlands; when elephants increase in abundance, intensified browsing pressure can transform savannas into open grasslands. We show that symbiotic ants stabilize tree cover across landscapes in Kenya by protecting a dominant tree from elephants. In feeding trials, elephants avoided plants with ants and did not distinguish between a myrmecophyte (the whistling-thorn tree [Acacia drepanolobium]) from which ants had been removed and a highly palatable, nonmyrmecophytic congener. In field experiments, elephants inflicted severe damage on whistling-thorn trees from which ants had been removed. Across two properties on which elephants increased between 2003 and 2008, cover of whistling-thorn did not change significantly inside versus outside large-scale elephant exclusion fences; over the same period of time, cover of nonmyrmecophytes differed profoundly inside versus outside exclusion fences. These results highlight the powerful role that symbioses and plant defense play in driving tree growth and survival in savannas, ecosystems of global economic and ecological importance.

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