Skip to main content

Data from: Economy of scale: third partner strengthens a keystone ant-plant mutualism

Cite this dataset

Prior, Kirsten M.; Palmer, Todd M. (2018). Data from: Economy of scale: third partner strengthens a keystone ant-plant mutualism [Dataset]. Dryad.


While foundation species can stabilize ecosystems at landscape scales, their ability to persist is often underlain by keystone interactions occurring at smaller scales. Acacia drepanolobium is a foundation tree, comprising >95% of woody cover in East African black-cotton savanna ecosystems. Its dominance is underlain by a keystone mutualistic interaction with several symbiotic ant species in which it provides housing (swollen thorns) and carbohydrate-rich nectar from extra-floral nectaries (EFN). In return, it gains protection from catastrophic damage from mega-herbivores. Crematogaster mimosae is the ecologically dominant symbiotic ant in this system, also providing the highest protection services. In addition to tending EFN, C. mimosae tend scale insects for carbohydrate-rich honeydew. We investigated the role of scale insects in this specialized ant-plant interaction. Specifically, does this putatively redundant third partner strengthen the ant-plant mutualism by making the ant a better protector of the tree? Or does it weaken the mutualism by being costly to the tree while providing no additional benefit to the ant-plant mutualism? We coupled observational surveys with two scale-manipulation experiments and found evidence that this third partner strengthens the ant-plant mutualism. Trees with scale insects experimentally removed experienced a 2.5X increase in elephant damage compared to trees with scale insects present over 10 months. Reduced protection was driven by scale removal causing a decrease in ant colony size and per capita baseline activity and defensive behavior. We also found that ants increased scale-tending and the density of scale insects on trees when EFN were experimentally reduced. Thus, in this system, scale insects and EFN are likely complementary, rather than redundant, resources with scale insects benefitting ants when EFN production is low (such as during annual dry periods in this semi-arid ecosystem). This study reveals that a third-partner strengthens an ant-plant mutualism that serves to stabilize a whole ecosystem.

Usage notes


National Science Foundation, Award: DEB-1149980


east Africa