Invasive ants take and squander native seeds: implications for native plant communities.
Seed dispersal is a fundamental process in the lifecycle of all flowering plants. Many plant species have evolved specialist associations with biotic vectors to facilitate dispersal. Such specialised interactions mean that these associations are potentially highly sensitive to disruption, e.g. from invasive species. However, despite this threat we still understand remarkably little about how such perturbations affect the dynamics and efficiency of the seed-dispersal process. In this study we quantify the impacts of an invasive ant across three key phases of the seed dispersal process: seed removal, distribution and placement, in order to determine the stages of seed dispersal most vulnerable to disruption by invaders. Using the Argentine ant (Linepithema humile) as a model, we show that invaded sites exhibited a significant decrease in seed dispersal services across all three phases of the dispersal process, relative to non-invaded sites. Seeds dispersed in invaded sites were: (a) less likely to be transported; (b) potentially distributed over a smaller spatial area, and (c) less likely to be placed at soil depths favourable for germination and establishment compared to those dispersed in non-invaded sites. These results reveal that ant-mediated seed dispersal services are significantly reduced by an invasive species at multiple stages in the dispersal process. Reductions in the efficacy of seed dispersal, combined with shifts in the ecological and geographical patterns of dispersal, may lead to cascading impacts on plant species composition and community structure. This study shows how an invasive ant can affect seed dispersal at several stages in the dispersal process.