Generalized, facultative mutualisms are often characterized by great variation in the benefits provided by different partner species. This variation may be due to differences among species in the quality and quantity of their interactions, as well as their phenology. Many plant species produce extrafloral nectar, a carbohydrate-rich resource, to attract ant species that can act as “bodyguards” against a plant's natural enemies. Here, we explore differences in the quality and quantity of protective service that ants can provide a plant by contrasting the four most common ant visitors to Ferocactus wislizeni, an extrafloral nectary-bearing cactus in southern Arizona. The four species differ in abundance when tending plants, and in the frequency at which they visit plants. By adding surrogate herbivores (Manduca sexta caterpillars) to plants, we demonstrate that all four species recruit to and attack potential herbivores. However, their per capita effectiveness in deterring herbivores (measured as the inverse of the number of workers needed to remove half of the experimentally added caterpillars) differs. Using these among-species differences in quality (per capita effectiveness) and quantity (number of workers that visit a plant and frequency of visitation), we accurately predicted the variation in fruit production among plants with different histories of ant tending. We found that plant benefits (herbivore removal and maturation of buds and fruits) typically saturated at high levels of ant protection, although plants could be “well defended” via different combinations of interaction frequency, numbers of ant workers per interaction, and per capita effects. Our study documents variation among prospective mutualists, distinguishes the components of this variation, and integrates these components into a predictive measure of protection benefit to the plant. The method we used to average saturating benefits over time could prove useful for quantifying overall service in other mutualisms.
|Date made available||2016|