Effect of Treefall Gaps on the Patchiness and Species Richness of Neotropical Ant Assemblages

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Natural formation of treefall gaps plays an integral role in the ecological and evolutionary dynamics of many tropical forests, affecting the spatiotemporal distribution of plants and the animals that interact with them. This study examines the impact of treefall gaps on the spatial and temporal patchiness of ant assemblages in a moist lowland forest in Panama. Using pitfall traps and honey baits, we compared ant assemblages in five 1 to 2-year-old treefall gaps (ca 100 m2) and five adjacent plots (ca 100 m2) in undisturbed forest understory at three different times of year (late wet season, late dry season, and early wet season). We found little evidence that ant assemblages respond dramatically to the formation of treefall gaps and the differences in habitat qualities they produce. Ant abundance, species richness, species composition, and rates of resource discovery did not differ between gaps and forest understory. However, we did find significant differences in numerical abundance related to forest stratum (ground vs vegetation) and resource type in pitfall traps (oil-cockroach vs honey), and significant differences in ant species richness and rates of resource discovery across seasons. While habitat effects by themselves were never statistically significant, habitat and seasonal differences in species richness interacted significantly to produce complex, season-dependent differences among gap and forest habitats. These results suggest that the formation of natural treefall gaps has less of an effect on Neotropical ant assemblages compared to other groups of organisms (e.g., plants, birds) or other causes of patchiness (e.g., ant mosaics, moisture availability, army ant predation). The results of our study also have important implications for the underlying causes of habitat differences in the distribution of ant-defended plants.