Cates, A., B. D. Wills, T. N. Kim, D. A. Landis, C. Gratton, H. W. Read, and R. Jackson. 2021. No evidence of top-down effects by ants on litter decomposition in a temperate grassland. Ecosphere 12:e03638.
Ants play multiple roles in ecosystems, but their ability to affect decomposition processes in temperate grasslands is relatively unknown. We investigated whether the suppression of ant populations influenced litter decomposition in grasslands via predation of some decomposers (e.g., mites and springtails) and/or microbial activity and composition. We performed two successful ant suppression treatments (seven weeks, 37% suppression, year 1, 10 weeks, 70% suppression, year 2) over the course of a 59-week experiment. We then assayed the effects of ant suppression using coarse- and fine-mesh litterbags and evaluated litter chemistry, microbial and arthropod communities, and microbial enzyme activity. Ant suppression efforts reduced ant abundance and altered ant, arthropod decomposer, and non-ant predator community composition. However, ant suppression did not affect decomposer arthropod abundance, litter mass loss, microbial composition, or enzyme activity in litterbags. Litterbag mesh size did not alter microbial composition, perhaps due to a failure to exclude decomposers, as mites and springtails were more or equally abundant in fine-mesh bags. Nevertheless, mesh size did change litter chemistry, suggesting that mesh size-mediated microenvironments affect decomposition environment regardless of invertebrate exclusion. Coarse-mesh litterbags had higher concentrations of microbial sugars, lignin, and N and lower concentrations of litter C and crystalline cellulose than fine-mesh litterbags. Litterbag mesh size may alter decomposition processes irrespective of invertebrate abundance. We found no evidence that ant predation was an important driver of decomposer populations or decomposition in these systems, and we suspect redundancy at the top of the detrital food web dilutes the role of ants.
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