Saving a tropical ecosystem from a destructive ant-scale (Pheidole megacephala, Pulvinaria urbicola) mutualism with support from a diverse natural enemy assemblage
Van Noort, S.
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Ants can disrupt the natural biological control of serious hemipteran pests by interfering with natural enemies, resulting in a change in ecosystem functioning. We focus here on interference by a highly invasive ant Pheidole megacephala on the regulation of a tree destroying hemipteran scale insect Pulvinaria urbicola on Cousine Island in the Seychelles archipelago, a tropical island ecosystem. We show how a diverse natural enemy assemblage contributes substantially to the collapse of the ant-scale mutualism following managed ant suppression. Natural enemy abundance and species richness increased significantly after ant suppression, with varying responses among the different functional guilds. Primary parasitoids coexisted with tending ants before ant suppression, but could not regulate the enormously high scale densities alone. After ant suppression, a significant increase in predators caused a collapse of the scale population. Guilds external to the mutualism were also affected, with primary parasitoids of various non-hemipteran taxa also increasing, which contributed significantly to the recovery of the community to its pre-invasion composition. Our results highlight the far-reaching and pervasive effects of the hemipteran-tending invasive ant within the natural enemy assemblage. In turn, we also illustrate the potential to restore the tropical ecosystem by encouraging an array of natural enemies through precision management of the ant.