Termites, vertebrate herbivores, and the fruiting success of Acacia drepanolobium

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In African savannas, vertebrate herbivores are often identified as key determinants of plant growth, survivorship, and reproduction. However, plant reproduction is likely to be the product of responses to a suite of abiotic and biotic factors, including nutrient availability and interactions with antagonists and mutualists. In a relatively simple system, we examined the role of termites (which act as ecosystem engineers—modifying physical habitat and creating islands of high soil fertility), vertebrate herbivores, and symbiotic ants, on the fruiting success of a dominant plant, Acacia drepanolobium, in East African savannas.

Using observational data, large-scale experimental manipulations, and analysis of foliar N, we found that Acacia drepanolobium trees growing at the edge of termite mounds were more likely to reproduce than those growing farther away, in off-mound soils. Although vertebrate herbivores preferentially used termite mounds as demonstrated by dung deposits, long-term exclusion of mammalian grazers did not significantly reduce A. drepanolobium fruit production. Leaf N was significantly greater in trees growing next to mounds than in those growing farther away, and this pattern was unaffected by exclusion of vertebrates. Thus, soil enrichment by termites, rather than through dung and urine deposition by large herbivores, is of primary importance to fruit production near mounds.

Across all mound–herbivore treatment combinations, trees that harbored Crematogaster sjostedti were more likely to fruit than those that harbored one of the other three ant species. Although C. sjostedti is less aggressive than the other ants, it tends to inhabit large, old trees near termite mounds which are more likely to fruit than smaller ones.

Termites play a key role in generating patches of nutrient-rich habitat important to the reproductive success of A. drepanolobium in East African savannas. Enhanced nutrient acquisition from termite mounds appears to allow plants to tolerate herbivory and the reduced defense by a relatively ineffective ant partner. Our results underscore the importance of simultaneously examining top-down and bottom-up effects to understand those factors most important to plant reproductive success.