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Diaspore trait preferences of dispersing ants.

Elaiosomes of myrmecochorous plant seeds are known to enhance the attraction of diaspore-dispersing ants by serving as a nutritional reward. However, it remained unclear which (nutritional) compounds affect diaspore preferences of ants. We hypothesized that apart from elaiosome/seed-size ratio, volume, and physical surface of diaspores, the quantity and the composition of fatty acids, amino acids, and sugars strongly influence the diaspore preferences of different species. Chemical (nutritional) profiles as well as structural properties of seeds with and without elaiosomes were analyzed and correlated with observed seed choice behavior of ants. Cafeteria experiments in the field confirmed the enhanced attractiveness of elaiosome-bearing seeds for all three ant species tested (Lasius fuliginosus, Myrmica ruginodis, and Temnothorax nylanderi), although seeds lacking elaiosomes also were transported. In multiple-choice cafeteria experiments with simultaneously offered diaspores of 16 plant species with and without elaiosome and with highly varying structural and chemical properties, all three ant species showed distinct preferences for certain diaspore species. Correlation analyses confirmed that the presence of an elaiosome represents the crucial factor that favors ant diaspore dispersal. In addition, the composition and the content of free amino acids, and to varying degrees fatty acids, were found to significantly affect preferences of each ant species, whereas the effect of single fatty acids acting as chemical triggers for diaspore transport by ants, as supposed by several studies, was not confirmed. In conclusion, although at least some diaspore species lacking elaiosomes attract ants for diaspore removal services by presenting nutritional seed coats, the production of elaiosomes seems to provide a worthwhile investment. Elaiosomes ensure rapid diaspore detection and removal due to chemical cue compounds and by offering a highly nutritional food supply, probably fitting the nutritional demands of ants.

Reifenrath, K.; Becker, C.; Poethke, H.J. 2012. Diaspore trait preferences of dispersing ants. 2012. Journal of Chemical Ecology 38 (9), 1093-1104.