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Geographical and interspecific variation and the nutrient‐enrichment hypothesis as an adaptive advantage of myrmecochory

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In myrmecochory, the relocation of diaspores to ant nests may lead to the enhancement of plant fitness because ant nests and their middens are often richer in essential nutrients than surrounding areas. This idea is the basis of the nutrient‐enrichment hypothesis (NEH), which suggests that nutrient enrichment may be a major selective influence in the evolution of myrmecochory. However, there is little evidence regarding whether the greater plant performance and fitness enhancement in ant nests is due to nutrient enrichment or other benefits of directed dispersal. Here, we present the results of a large‐scale seed‐sowing experiment that tests the NEH in the ant‐dispersed perennial herb Helleborus foetidus, exploring geographical and inter‐ant taxa variation. Experiments were conducted in three well‐separated regions of the Iberian Peninsula, targeting the nests of major and minor local ant dispersers (nine ant species in total) and the soil beneath maternal plants as seed destinations. Seedling emergence, survival and early establishment rates, as well as variation in soil characteristics, were obtained for each seed destination at each region. Our results do not fully support the NEH in our study system. Instead, we found that the advantage of ant nest soil for establishment in H. foetidus was conditional. Differences in soil fertility and concomitant differences in seedling establishment between ant nests and beneath the canopy of maternal plants were observed in some regions and for some ant species, but not in others. Thus, the conditional outcomes arise from inconsistencies among regions, between stages of seedling regeneration and among ant species in the advantages of being dispersed to nests. Because variation in the guilds of ant dispersers of myrmecochore plants across their ranges is common, this study illustrates the need to consider geographic and inter‐ant taxa variation for a complete evaluation of the NEH.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Depto Biología Animal, Biología Vegetal y Ecología, Univ. de Jaén, Paraje las Lagunillas s/n, ES–23071 Jaén, Spain

Publication date: April 1, 2012

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