Temperature Cues Phenological Synchrony in Ant‐Mediated Seed Dispersal

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Species-specific climate responses within ecological communities may disrupt the synchrony of co-evolved mutualisms that are based on the shared timing of seasonal events, such as seed dispersal by ants (myrmecochory). The spring phenology of plants and ants coincides with marked changes in temperature, light and moisture. We investigate how these environmental drivers influence both seed release by early and late spring woodland herb species, and initiation of spring foraging by seed-dispersing ants. We pair experimental herbaceous transplants with artificial ant bait stations across north- and south-facing slopes at two contrasting geographic locations. This use of space enables robust identification of plant fruiting and ant foraging cues, and the use of transplants permits us to assess plasticity in plant phenology. We find that warming temperatures act as the primary phenological cue for plant fruiting and ant foraging. Moreover, the plasticity in plant response across locations, despite transplants being from the same source, suggests a high degree of portability in the seed-dispersing mutualism. However, we also find evidence for potential climate-driven facilitative failure that may lead to phenological asynchrony. Specifically, at the location where the early flowering species (Hepatica nobilis) is decreasing in abundance and distribution, we find far fewer seed-dispersing ants foraging during its fruit set than during that of the later flowering Hexastylis arifolia. Notably, the key seed disperser, Aphaenogaster rudis, fails to emerge during early fruit set at this location. At the second location, A. piceaforages equally during early and late seed release. These results indicate that climate-driven changes might shift species-specific interactions in a plant–ant mutualism resulting in winners and losers within the myrmecochorous plant guild.