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Contributions of Leaf-Cutting Ants to Soil Fertility: Causes and Consequences pp.81-92 $100.00
Authors:  (Alejandro G. Farji-Brener, Mariana Tadey, Laboratorio Ecotono-INIBIOMA-CRUB-UNComa-CONICET, Bariloche, Argentina)
Leaf-cutting ants modify soil fertility through two mechanisms. First, the building,
enlargement, and maintenance of nests ants affect soil structure, porosity and density.
Second, leafcutters collect and concentrate vegetal material inside their nests to maintain
their fungus culture, the food for most of the colony. As a result of this process, ants
generate a huge quantity of organic waste that is deposited in nest cavities or dumps on
the soil surface. This organic waste is very rich in nutrients. The content of organic
Carbon, Nitrogen, Potassium, Phosphorous, and Magnesium is, in average, between 20
and 50 times greater in refuse dumps than in adjacent, non-nest soils. The process of
waste deposition, thus, notably increases the nutrient content of soils around nests.
Consequently, plants inhabiting nest areas often show greater abundance, growth rate,
foliar and root biomass, and reproduction rate than plants outside nest areas. This positive
effect on plants might scale-up and affect the structure of vegetation assemblages and the
balance between trees and herbs at landscape scale. Several factors affect the contribution
of leaf-cutting ants to soil fertility. Particularly, extreme weather, low abundance of
palatable vegetation for leafcutters, competition with introduced mammalian herbivores
and frequent fires reduce ant foraging rates, nest abundance, and therefore their
production of organic waste. Since leaf-cutting ant activity and nest density is strongly
dependent on the availability of pioneer or ruderal plant species, the strength of their
contribution to soil fertility could be more important in early successional environments
and disturbed habitats. Ant-nest areas should be especially protected because they are hot
spot of plant diversity and core of plant succession. From a restoration point of view, the
nutrient-rich refuse dumps can be employed as natural, free-access and ecologically
sustainable fertilizer to improve soil fertility in degraded areas. 

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Contributions of Leaf-Cutting Ants to Soil Fertility: Causes and Consequences pp.81-92