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Open Access Research article

Competitive assembly of South Pacific invasive ant communities

Philip J Lester1*, Kirsti L Abbott12, Megan Sarty13 and KC Burns1

Author Affiliations

1 School of Biological Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington, P.O. Box 600, Wellington, New Zealand

2 Science Faculty, Monash University, Melbourne, VIC, Australia

3 MAF Biosecurity New Zealand, P.O. Box 2526, Wellington, New Zealand

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BMC Ecology 2009, 9:3  doi:10.1186/1472-6785-9-3

Published: 24 January 2009

Abstract

Background

The relative importance of chance and determinism in structuring ecological communities has been debated for nearly a century. Evidence for determinism or assembly rules is often evaluated with null models that randomize the occurrence of species in particular locales. However, analyses of the presence or absence of species ignores the potential influence of species abundances, which have long been considered of major importance on community structure. Here, we test for community assembly rules in ant communities on small islands of the Tokelau archipelago using both presence-absence and abundance data. We conducted three sets of analyses on two spatial scales using three years of sampling data from 39 plots on 11 islands.

Results

First, traditional null model tests showed support for negative species co-occurrence patterns among plots within islands, but not among islands. A plausible explanation for this result is that analyses at larger spatial scales merge heterogeneous habitats that have considerable effects on species occurrences. Second, analyses of ant abundances showed that samples with high ant abundances had fewer species than expected by chance, both within and among islands. One ant species, the invasive yellow crazy ant Anoplolepis gracilipes, appeared to have a particularly strong effect on community structure correlated with its abundance. Third, abundances of most ant species were inversely correlated with the abundances of all other ants at both spatial scales. This result is consistent with competition theory, which predicts species distributions are affected by diffuse competition with suites of co-occurring species.

Conclusion

Our results support a pluralistic explanation for ant species abundances and assembly. Both stochastic and deterministic processes interact to determine ant community assembly, though abundance patterns clearly drive the deterministic patterns in this community. These deterministic patterns were observed at two spatial scales. Results indicate that abundance-based null models may be more sensitive in detecting non-random patterns in community assembly than species co-occurrences analyses.