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Competition-based screening of partners as a stabilizing mechanism in ant-plant facultative mutualisms


The evolution of mutualistic interactions depends on stabilizing mechanisms that reduce the chance that individuals will interact with cheating partners (i.e. individuals that benefit from partners providing none or little benefits in return). Although some stabilizing mechanisms have being reported for different kinds of obligated mutualisms, little is known about how facultative mutualists avoid interactions with cheating partners. As most known mutualisms are facultative, such asymmetry in the investigation efforts may constrain our understanding about the evolution of an expressive percentage of the known mutualisms. In this project, I will to investigate the existence of a stabilizing mechanism using the facultative mutualism between ants and plants bearing extrafloral nectaries (EFNs) as a model system. In this mutualism, more aggressive ant species, which are more efficient plant bodyguards against herbivores, are also those with greater interspecific competitive ability. Thus, it is possible that EFN-bearing plants could benefit from a competition-based mechanism of partner screening in which increasing in EFN quality fuel competition among ant visitors by plant use, reducing the chances of EFN-plants be attended by little aggressive ant bodyguards. I divided this project in three modules investigating different expected patterns resultant of the existence of competition-based partner screening. In the first module, I will investigate how interspecific variation in ant and EFN-bearing plants traits can predict the quality of these species as mutualistic partners and how it can drive macro-ecological patterns of ant and EFN-bearing plants interaction. If the stabilizing mechanism proposed here occurs, we should expected the existence of a macro-ecological pattern of assortative pairing in which plant species that secrete better nectar is more frequently attended by better ant bodyguards. In the second module, I will investigate how temporal variation in plant investment in extrafloral nectar can fuel competition among ant visitors and affect the plant probability of interaction with better ant bodyguards. EFN-bearing plants tend to invest more in nectar secretion in response to herbivore attack. Therefore, it is expected that improvement in nectar secretion in this situation fuel competition among ant species, increasing the chances of plant attendance by better ant bodyguards. Finally, in the third module, I will investigate how spatial variation in competition intensity between ants influence plant interaction with better ant bodyguards. If competition-based pattern screening occurs in this mutualism, we should expect that plant populations occurring in habitats with high interspecific competition among ant species benefit more from ant attendance, due to the increasing in the probability of interaction with better bodyguards. I expect that this proposal will provide the publication of at least seven scientific papers in high impact journals and in the training of at least six undergraduated and graduated students. (AU)

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Scientific publications (4)
(References retrieved automatically from Web of Science and SciELO through information on FAPESP grants and their corresponding numbers as mentioned in the publications by the authors)
PASSOS, FELIPE C. S.; LEAL, LAURA C.. Protein matters: ants remove herbivores more frequently from extrafloral nectary-bearing plants when habitats are protein poor. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, v. 127, n. 2, p. 407-416, . (17/13358-1)
LEAL, LAURA C.; NOGUEIRA, ANSELMO; PEIXOTO, PAULO E. C.. Which traits optimize plant benefits? Meta-analysis on the effect of partner traits on the outcome of an ant-plant protective mutualism. JOURNAL OF ECOLOGY, v. 111, n. 1, p. 13-pg., . (17/13358-1)
CHINARELLI, HENRIQUE D.; NOGUEIRA, ANSELMO; LEAL, LAURA C.. xtrafloral nectar production induced by simulated herbivory does not improve ant bodyguard attendance and ultimately plant defenc. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, v. 135, n. 3, p. 429-446, . (19/19544-7, 17/13358-1)
CHINARELLI, HENRIQUE D.; PUPE, ANA E.; LEAL, LAURA C.. Peace, sweet peace: ants become less aggressive when carbohydrates abound. ECOLOGICAL ENTOMOLOGY, v. 46, n. 2, p. 273-282, . (17/13358-1)

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