Journal of Tropical Ecology

Research Article

Effect of leaf-cutting ant nests on plant growth in an oligotrophic Amazon rain forest

Amartya K. Sahaa1 c1, Karine S. Carvalhoa2, Leonel da S. L. Sternberga3 and Paulo Moutinhoa4

a1 Southeastern Environmental Research Center, Florida International University, Miami, FL 33199, USA

a2 Departamento de Ciências Biológicas, Universidade Estadual do Sudoeste da Bahia, Av. José Moreira Sobrinho, 45206-190, Jequié, BA, Brazil

a3 Department of Biology, University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL 33124, USA

a4 Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazônia, Av. Nazaré 669, 66035-170, Belém, PA, Brazil


This study examined whether high nutrient concentrations associated with leaf-cutting ant nests influence plant growth and plant water relations in Amazon rain forests. Three nests of Atta cephalotes were selected along with 31 Amaioua guianensis and Protium sp. trees that were grouped into trees near and distant (>10 m) from nests. A 15N leaf-labelling experiment confirmed that trees located near nests accessed nutrients from nests. Trees near nests exhibited higher relative growth rates (based on stem diameter increases) on average compared with trees further away; however this was significant for A. guianensis (near nest 0.224 y−1 and far from nest 0.036 y−1) but not so for Protium sp. (0.146 y−1 and 0.114 y−1 respectively). Water relations were similarly species-specific; for A. guianensis, near-nest individuals showed significantly higher sap flow rates (16 vs. 5 cm h−1), higher predawn/midday water potentials (−0.66 vs. −0.98 MPa) and lower foliar δ13C than trees further away indicating greater water uptake in proximity to the nests while the Protium sp. showed no significant difference except for carbon isotopes. This study thus shows that plant response to high nutrient concentrations in an oligotrophic ecosystem varies with species. Lower seedling abundance and species richness on nests as compared with further away suggests that while adult plants access subterranean nutrient pools, the nest surfaces themselves do not encourage plant establishment and growth.

(Accepted February 04 2012)


c1 Corresponding author. Email:;