The degree to which competition by dominant species shapes ecological communities remains a largely unresolved debate. In ants, unimodal dominance–richness relationships are common and suggest that dominant species, when very abundant, competitively exclude non-dominant species. However, few studies have investigated the underlying mechanisms by which dominant ants might affect coexistence and the maintenance of species richness. In this study, we first examined the relationship between the richness of non-dominant ant species and the abundance of a dominant ant species, Formica subsericea
, among forest ant assemblages in the eastern US. This relationship was hump-shaped or not significant depending on the inclusion or exclusion of an influential observation. Moreover, we found only limited evidence that F. subsericea
negatively affects the productivity or behavior of non-dominant ant species. For example, at the colony-level, the size and productivity of colonies of non-dominant ant species were not different when they were in close proximity to dominant ant nests than when they were away and, in fact, was associated with increased productivity in one species. Additionally, the number of foraging workers of only one non-dominant ant species was lower at food sources near than far from dominant F. subsericea
nests, while the number of foragers of other species was not negatively affected. However, foraging activity of the non-dominant ant species was greater at night when F. subsericea
was inactive, suggesting a potential mechanism by which some non-dominant species avoid interactions with competitively superior species. Gaining a mechanistic understanding of how patterns of community structure arise requires linking processes from colonies to communities. Our study suggests the negative effects of dominant ant species on non-dominant species may be offset by mechanisms promoting coexistence.
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