Diminishing importance of elaiosomes for acacia seed removal in non-native ranges
Myrmecochorous plants produce seeds with lipid-rich appendages (elaiosomes) which act as a reward for seed-dispersing ants. Seed dispersal is important for exotic species, which often need to establish new mutualistic interactions in order to colonize new non-native habitats. However, little is known about the importance of elaiosomes for seed removal in many of their non-native ranges. We studied ant–seed interactions of elaiosome-bearing and elaiosome-removed seeds of the Australian trees Acacia dealbata and Acacia longifolia in order to assess the relative importance of elaiosomes for seed removal between their native (Australia) and non-native (Portugal) ranges. In Portugal, we also studied the co-occurring native plant species with myrmecochorous seeds, Pterospartum tridentatum and Ulex europaeus, across three contiguous levels of acacia invasion: control (i.e. no acacia), low, and high acacia tree density. Acacia seeds were successfully removed by ants in their non-native region by a diversified assemblage of ant species, even in sites where native plants interacted with only one specialized ant species. In the invaded range, diminishing relative importance of elaiosomes was associated with changes in the ant community due to acacia invasion, and for A. dealbata, ant species richness decreased with increasing acacia tree density. Although seed removal was high for both acacia species, the importance of elaiosomes was proportionally lower for A. dealbata in the non-native region. Native plant species experienced significant reductions in seed removal in areas highly invaded by acacia, identifying another mechanism of displacement of native plants by acacias.