Wendt, C.F., Nunes, A., Dias, S.L., Verble, R., Branquinho, C & Boieiro, M. (2022) Seed removal decrease by invasive Argentine ants in a high Nature Value farmland.Journal for Nature Conservation, 67, 126183. DOI:10.1016/j.jnc.2022.126183 (IF2020 2,831; Q2 Biodiversity Conservation)
Seed dispersal by ants is an important ecological process that maintains the structure and diversity of natural communities, however, it is vulnerable to biological invasions. Argentine ants are one of the worst invasive ant species and cause severe changes in ecosystem processes and native ant biodiversity declines in invaded sites. Here, we studied seed removal by ants combining observations and a cafeteria experiment with seeds of four myrmecochorous plant species (Centaurea sphaerocephala, Rosmarinus officinalis, Silybum marianum, and Ulex australis) in two sites (invaded and uninvaded) located in the Mediterranean Montado ecosystem and classified as High Nature Value farmland (HNV). Significant differences in daily seed removal rates were found between the two study sites. In uninvaded sites, several native ant species were attracted to the seeds, resulting in all seeds being removed rapidly. The majority of seed removal events were carried out by two key seed disperses Pheidole pallidula (71%) and Aphaenogaster iberica (26%) with a clear preference for diaspored with larger and heavier elaiosome (i.e., C. sphaerocephala, S. marianum). By contrast, while the Argentine ant showed some interest (68% of seeds were interacted with), no seed removal events were observed. The extirpation of the local ant fauna by the Argentine ant and its inability to ensure seed dispersal services may lead to the interference and eventually to the collapse of seed dispersal of the four studied myrmecochorous plants in the invaded site in the future. We argue that these discrete but severe consequences of an invasive species on a key ecological process may strongly affect the functioning of the Montado ecosystem.