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Open Access Research article

Leaf endophyte load influences fungal garden development in leaf-cutting ants

Sunshine A Van Bael12*, Catalina Estrada2, Stephen A Rehner3, Janette Fabiola Santos2 and William T Wcislo2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Tulane University, 6823 St. Charles Avenue, New Orleans, LA, 70118, USA

2 Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Apartado, 0843-03092, Republic of Panama

3 Systematic Mycology and Microbiology Laboratory, USDA-ARS, Beltsville, MD, 20705, USA

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BMC Ecology 2012, 12:23  doi:10.1186/1472-6785-12-23

Published: 9 November 2012

Abstract

Background

Previous work has shown that leaf-cutting ants prefer to cut leaf material with relatively low fungal endophyte content. This preference suggests that fungal endophytes exact a cost on the ants or on the development of their colonies. We hypothesized that endophytes may play a role in their host plants’ defense against leaf-cutting ants. To measure the long-term cost to the ant colony of fungal endophytes in their forage material, we conducted a 20-week laboratory experiment to measure fungal garden development for colonies that foraged on leaves with low or high endophyte content.

Results

Colony mass and the fungal garden dry mass did not differ significantly between the low and high endophyte feeding treatments. There was, however, a marginally significant trend toward greater mass of fungal garden per ant worker in the low relative to the high endophyte treatment. This trend was driven by differences in the fungal garden mass per worker from the earliest samples, when leaf-cutting ants had been foraging on low or high endophyte leaf material for only 2 weeks. At two weeks of foraging, the mean fungal garden mass per worker was 77% greater for colonies foraging on leaves with low relative to high endophyte loads.

Conclusions

Our data suggest that the cost of endophyte presence in ant forage material may be greatest to fungal colony development in its earliest stages, when there are few workers available to forage and to clean leaf material. This coincides with a period of high mortality for incipient colonies in the field. We discuss how the endophyte-leaf-cutter ant interaction may parallel constitutive defenses in plants, whereby endophytes reduce the rate of colony development when its risk of mortality is greatest.

Keywords:
Atta colombica; Attini; Leaf-cutting ants; Lepiotaceae; Mutualism; Symbioses