Testing the Distraction Hypothesis: do extrafloral nectaries reduce ant-pollinator conflict?

Nora Villamil-Buenrostro, Karina Boege, Graham N. Stone

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Context: Ant guards protect plants from herbivores, but can also hinder pollination by damaging reproductive structures and/or repelling pollinators. Natural selection should favour the evolution of plant traits that deter ants from visiting flowers during anthesis, without waiving their defensive services. The Distraction Hypothesis posits that rewarding ants with extrafloral nectar could reduce their visitation of flowers, reducing ant-pollinator conflict while retaining protection of other structures. 
Methods: We characterised the proportion of flowers occupied by ants and the number of ants per flower in a Mexican ant-plant, Turnera velutina. We clogged extrafloral nectaries on field plants and observed the effects on patrolling ants, pollinators and ants inside flowers, and quantified the effects on plant fitness. Based on the Distraction Hypothesis we predicted that preventing extrafloral nectar secretion should result in fewer ants active at extrafloral nectaries, more ants inside flowers and a higher proportion of flowers occupied by ants, leading to ant-pollinator conflict, with reduced pollinator visitation and reduced plant fitness.

Results: Overall ant activity inside flowers was low. Preventing extrafloral nectar secretion through clogging reduced the number of ants patrolling extrafloral nectaries, significantly increased the proportion of flowers occupied by ants from 6.1% to 9.7%, and reduced plant reproductive output through a 12% increase in the probability of fruit abortion. No change in the numbers of ants or pollinators inside flowers was observed. This is the first support for the Distraction Hypothesis obtained under field conditions, showing ecological and plant fitness benefits of the distracting function of extrafloral nectar during anthesis.

Synthesis: Our study provides the first field experimental support for the Distraction Hypothesis, suggesting that extrafloral nectaries located close to flowers may bribe ants away from reproductive structures during the crucial pollination period, reducing the probability of ant-occupation of flowers, reducing ant-pollinator conflict, and increasing plant reproductive success.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberJEcol-2018-0619.R1
JournalJournal of Ecology
Early online date23 Jan 2019
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 23 Jan 2019

Keywords

  • Ant-pollinator conflict
  • Distraction Hypothesis
  • extrafloral nectaries
  • myrmecophile
  • Turnera velutina
  • fitness

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