Interactions between ants and non-myrmecochorous diaspores in a West African montane landscape
Myrmecochory, the dispersal of seeds with lipid-rich appendages by ants, is a significant ant–plant interaction. Less well understood is the potential for ant dispersal of non-myrmecochorous seeds. Here we investigate ant–diaspore interactions in a West African montane habitat. We combine observation with depot experiments to determine ant species that move diaspores and distance moved across a forest-edge-grassland gradient. We recorded seed cleaning by ants using a bird/mammal dispersed Paullinia pinnata to determine whether seed cleaning improved plant fitness. We found that two out of a total of 17 ant species (Pheidole sp. 1 and Myrmicaria opaciventris) interacted with 10 species of non-myrmecochorous diaspores across nine plant families. Diaspores were from large canopy trees, understorey trees and vines. Both ant species interacted with small (≤0.24 g) and large (≥0.24 g) diaspores. Ants individually moved small diaspores up to 1.2 m and worked together to clean larger ones. Our experiments with P. pinnata showed that ants removed the pulp of 70% of fruit over 5 days. Cleaned seeds germinated significantly faster and produced seedlings with significantly longer shoot length and higher fresh weight than seedlings from intact seeds. Together our results suggest that ant dispersal may be less significant than seed cleaning in Afromontane forests. However, given the decline in vertebrate frugivores across Africa, a small dispersal advantage may become increasingly important to plant fitness.