Low levels of intraspecific trait variation in a keystone invertebrate group
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The trait-based approach to ecology promises to provide a mechanistic understanding of species distributions and ecosystem functioning. Typically, trait analyses focus on average species trait values and assume that intraspecific variation is small or negligible. Recent work has shown, however, that intraspecific trait variation can often contribute substantially to total trait variation. Whilst many studies have investigated intraspecific variation in plants, very few have done so for invertebrates. There is no research on the level of intraspecific trait variation in ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae), despite the fact that there is a growing body of literature using ant morphological trait data and demonstrating that these insects play important roles in many ecosystems and food webs. Here, we investigate the intraspecific variability of four commonly used ant morphological traits from 23 species from the Maloti-Drakensberg Mountains of southern Africa. In total, we measured 1145 different individuals and made 6870 trait measurements. Intraspecific variation accounted for only 1–4% of total trait variation for each of the four traits we analysed. We found no links between intraspecific variation, phylogeny and elevation. On average, six individuals generated robust species means but under biased sampling scenarios 20 individuals were needed. The low levels of intraspecific morphological variation that we find suggest that the approach of using mean species traits is valid, in this fauna at least. Regardless, we encourage ant trait ecologists to measure greater numbers of individuals, especially across gradients, to shed further light on intraspecific variation in this functionally important group of insects.