Density dependence and the spread of invasive big-headed ants (Pheidole megacephala) in an East African savanna.
Supercolonial ants are among the largest cooperative units in nature, attaining extremely high densities. How these densities feed back into their population growth rates and how abundance and extrinsic factors interact to affect their population dynamics remain open questions. We studied how local worker abundance and extrinsic factors (rain, tree density) affect population growth rate and spread in the invasive big-headed ant, which is disrupting a keystone mutualism between acacia trees and native ants in parts of East Africa. We measured temporal changes in big-headed ant (BHA) abundance and rates of spread over 20 months along eight transects, extending from areas behind the front with high BHA abundances to areas at the invasion front with low BHA abundances. We used models that account for negative density dependence and incorporated extrinsic factors to determine what variables best explain variation in local population growth rates. Population growth rates declined with abundance, however, the strength of density dependence decreased with abundance. We suggest that weaker density dependence at higher ant abundances may be due to the beneficial effect of cooperative behavior that partially counteracts resource limitation. Rainfall and tree density had minor effects on ant population dynamics. BHA spread near 50 m/year, more than previous studies reported and comparable to rates of spread of other supercolonial ants. Although we did not detect declines in abundance in areas invaded a long time ago (> 10 years), continued monitoring of abundance at invaded sites may help to better understand the widespread collapse of many invasive ants.