Effect of three mound-building ant species on the formation of soil seed bank in mountain grassland.
The effect of three ant species (Lasius flavus, Formica spp., Tetramorium caespitum) on soil seed bank formation was studied in temperate mountain grassland in Slovakia. Seed removal experiments, analysis of soil seed content and seed survival experiments were carried out to evaluate the influence of ground ants on the seed fate. In the seed removal experiment seeds of 16 species, including 5 species with elaiosome-bearing seeds (myrmecochores), were exposed and their removal followed for 39 h. The studied species include Agrostis tenuis [A. capillaris], Anthoxanthum odoratum, Deschampsia flexuosa, Dianthus deltoides, Festuca pratensis, F. rubra, Poa chaixii, Silene viscaria, Stellaria graminea, Thymus pulegioides, Veronica officinalis and the five myrmecochorous species were Polygala vulgaris, Danthonia decumbens, Luzula campestris, Potentilla erecta and Viola canina. On average, ants removed 63.8% of myrmecochorous seeds and 10.9% of seeds without adaptation to ant dispersal. Analysis of soil seed content revealed that myrmecochores, in spite of expectations that they would accumulate in nests of seed dispersing ants, were most abundant in the soil of control plots. Evidence on seed relocation to the ant nests was obtained from a comparison of mounds of seed dispersing and seed non-dispersing ant species, as more seeds were found in the mounds of Formica spp. and Tetramorium caespitum (seed dispersers) in comparison with the mounds of Lasius flavus (non-disperser). The soil seed bank of the compared microhabitats (control plots and mounds of 3 ant species) differed in their species composition, seed abundance and vertical distribution. The most distinct qualitative differences were between seed flora of control plots and mounds of Tetramorium caespitum. Control plots had approximately 30 000 propagules per m2, which was double the number of seeds found in the ant mounds. In control plots, abundance and diversity of seeds steeply declined with depth; this trend was not observed in the mounds probably due to bioturbation. In the seed survival experiment, more seeds (2 out of 3 species) survived in control plots, which may also contribute to the higher seed abundance in this microhabitat. This study showed that seed relocation by ants does not contribute significantly to seed bank build-up at this study site. Ants may, however, increase the regeneration success of myrmecochores, mainly by dispersal for distance and placement in a larger spectrum of microsites, in contrast to species not adapted for myrmecochory.