Testing effects of invasive fire ants and disturbance on ant communities of the longleaf pine ecosystem.
1. Invasive species and habitat disturbance are among the most important drivers of biodiversity loss and ecological change. Their individual effects, however, are difficult to disentangle because invasion and disturbance are often intimately linked. Here we test alternative hypotheses to determine if the invasive red imported fire ant, Solenopsis invicta, is a 'driver' or simply a 'passenger' of ecological change in a longleaf pine ecosystem. 2. We randomly assigned treatments of (1) unmanipulated, (2) soil disturbance, (3) fire ant removal and (4) soil disturbance + fire ant removal to experimental blocks and measured how ant communities changed over 2 years in thirty-six 15-m2 plots. 3. Fire ant abundance in removal plots averaged 42% lower in pitfall traps and 95% lower on baits compared to unmanipulated, control plots. Species richness of co-occurring ants also decreased 42% in removal plots, with significant changes in community composition. Soil disturbance alone did not affect ant communities. Fire ant diet breadth-measured using carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes-increased up to 4.7-fold in soil disturbance + removal plots (i.e. 0.84‰2 to 3.94‰2). 4. While non-target impacts of the fire ant removal treatment complicate interpretation, our results suggest fire ants follow an alternative 'interacting drivers' model in which partial recovery of some species occurs when populations of an invasive species are reduced. Further recovery of native ants may be limited by persisting, landscape-level effects of fire ants suppressing co-occurring ants below historical levels.