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Removing understory vegetation in oil palm agroforestry reduces ground-foraging ant abundance but not species richness

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Hood, Amelia SC 
Advento, Andreas D 
Stone, Jake 
Fayle, Tom M 
Fairnie, Alice LM 


Ants are known to provide valuable ecosystem services in agricultural landscapes, including oil palm plantations. Their communities are less diverse and more uneven in oil palm compared with forest, and this may increase their vulnerability to disturbance. This study quantifies ant communities in oil palm agroforestry and experimentally tests their robustness to a common-practice high-disturbance management intervention: removing understory vegetation.

Fieldwork was based at the Biodiversity and Ecosystem Function in Tropical Agriculture (BEFTA) Understory Vegetation Project in Sumatra, Indonesia, where three treatments varying in their degree of understory vegetation management were established in 2014: (1) widespread herbicide was applied removing all understory vegetation (Reduced); (2) herbicide was applied to the harvesting paths and circles, and other vegetation was allowed to grow (Normal - control); (3) no herbicide was applied (Enhanced). We measured ground-foraging ant communities before and after the treatments were implemented, using pitfall traps over 324 trap-nights (a trap-night is one trap set for one night). We investigated how ant abundance, species richness, species evenness, beta diversity, and community composition differed between the treatments.

We found 3507 ants across 68 species or morphospecies. Seven of these were highly abundant and accounted for 78% of individuals. Post-treatment ant abundance was lower in the reduced treatment (mean per plot: 84) than in the normal (159) and enhanced (131) treatments, which did not differ from each other. Species richness, species evenness, beta diversity and community composition were not affected by the vegetation treatments.

We recommend that oil palm growers maintain understory vegetation in oil palm plantations to support ground-foraging ants. Though not tested here, this may also improve ant-mediated ecosystem services, such as pest control, seed dispersal, nutrient redistribution, and the maintenance of soil health. This study demonstrates that enhancing habitat complexity through management practices can support biodiversity in monocrop landscapes.



Agroforestry, Ants, Biodiversity, Formicidae, Habitat complexity, Habitat heterogeneity, Herbicide, Oil palm, Structural com-plexity, Understory vegetation

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Basic and Applied Ecology

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Elsevier BV
Natural Environment Research Council (NE/P00458X/1)
Isaac Newton Trust (Minute 925(ab))