Thermal tolerance affects mutualist attendance in an ant-plant protection mutualism

Ginny Fitzpatrick, Michele C. Lanan, Judith L. Bronstein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


Mutualism is an often complex interaction among multiple species, each of which may respond differently to abiotic conditions. The effects of temperature on the formation, dissolution, and success of these and other species interactions remain poorly understood. We studied the thermal ecology of the mutualism between the cactus Ferocactus wislizeni and its ant defenders (Forelius pruinosus, Crematogaster opuntiae, Solenopsis aurea, and Solenopsis xyloni) in the Sonoran Desert, USA. The ants are attracted to extrafloral nectar produced by the plants and, in exchange, protect the plants from herbivores; there is a hierarchy of mutualist effectiveness based on aggression toward herbivores. We determined the relationship between temperature and ant activity on plants, the thermal tolerance of each ant species, and ant activity in relation to the thermal environment of plants. Temperature played a role in determining which species interact as mutualists. Three of the four ant species abandoned the plants during the hottest part of the day (up to 40 °C), returning when surface temperature began to decrease in the afternoon. The least effective ant mutualist, F. pruinosus, had a significantly higher critical thermal maximum than the other three species, was active across the entire range of plant surface temperatures observed (13.8-57.0 °C), and visited plants that reached the highest temperatures. F. pruinosus occupied some plants full-time and invaded plants occupied by more dominant species when those species were thermally excluded. Combining data on thermal tolerance and mutualist effectiveness provides a potentially powerful tool for predicting the effects of temperature on mutualisms and mutualistic species.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)129-138
Number of pages10
Issue number1
StatePublished - Sep 2014


  • Abiotic
  • Desert
  • Species interaction
  • Temperature
  • Thermal ecology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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