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Divergent investment strategies of Acacia myrmecophytes and the coexistence of mutualists and exploiters


Clement,  Lars W.
Department of Bioorganic Chemistry, MPI for Chemical Ecology, Max Planck Society;
IMPRS on Ecological Interactions, MPI for Chemical Ecology, Max Planck Society;

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Heil, M., González-Teuber, M., Clement, L. W., Kautz, S., Verhaagh, M., & Bueno, S. (2009). Divergent investment strategies of Acacia myrmecophytes and the coexistence of mutualists and exploiters. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106(43), 18091-18096. doi:10.1073/pnas.0904304106.

Ant-plant interactions represent a diversity of strategies, from exploitative to mutualistic, and how these strategies evolve is poorly understood. Here, we link physiological, ecological, and phylogenetic approaches to study the evolution and coexistence of strategies in the Acacia–Pseudomyrmex system. Host plant species represented 2 different strategies. High-reward hosts produced significantly more extrafloral nectar (EFN), food bodies, and nesting space than low-reward hosts, even when being inhabited by the same species of ant mutualist. High-reward hosts were more effectively defended against herbivores and exploited to a lower extent by nondefending ants than low-reward hosts. At the phenotypic level, secretion of EFN and ant activity were positively correlated and a mutualistic ant species induced nectar secretion, whereas a nondefending exploiter did not. All of these mechanisms contribute to the stable association of high-reward hosts with defending ant species. However, exploiter ants are less dependent on the host-derived rewards and can colonize considerable proportions of the low-reward hosts. Mapping these strategies onto phylogenetic trees demonstrated that the low-reward hosts represent the derived clade within a monophyletic group of obligate ant plants and that the observed exploiter ant species evolved their strategy without having a mutualistic ancestor. We conclude that both types of host strategies coexist because of variable net outcomes of different investment–payoff regimes and that the effects of exploiters on the outcome of mutualisms can, thus, increase the diversity within the taxa involved.