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Progressive sensitivity of trophic levels to warming underlies an elevational gradient in ant–aphid mutualism strength

Published Web Location Commons 'BY' version 4.0 license

Although species interactions are often proposed to be stronger at lower latitudes and elevations, few studies have evaluated the mechanisms driving such patterns. In this study, we assessed whether, and by which mechanisms, abiotic changes associated with elevation altered the outcome of an ant–aphid protection mutualism. To do so, we characterized the multi-trophic interactions among the ant Formica podzolica, the aphid Aphis varians, and aphid natural enemies occurring on the plant Chamerion angustifolium within replicate high and low elevation valleys. Low (versus high) elevation sites had longer summers (snowmelt 13 days earlier) and were on average 1.1°C warmer and 41% drier throughout the year. At low elevations, individual ant colonies consumed approximately double the volume of carbohydrate baits, likely due to a higher foraging tempo, and possibly due to a greater demand for sugar- versus protein-rich resources (as indicated by stable isotope analysis). Wild aphid colonies at low elevations were visited by 1.4-fold more natural enemies (controlling for variation in aphid abundance), while experimental aphid colonies on potted plants were tended 52% more frequently by ants. As a result, ants increased aphid colony survival by 66% at low elevations but had no detectable effect at high elevations; at low (versus high) elevations aphid colonies without ants had lower survival, demonstrating stronger predator effects, while aphid colonies with ants had higher survival, demonstrating even stronger ant benefits. Analyses for the effects of mean summer temperature yielded qualitatively identical results to those based on elevation. Collectively, these findings support predictions for a greater sensitivity of higher trophic levels to warming and demonstrate how species interactions can vary across environmental gradients due to simultaneous changes in species traits and abundances across multiple trophic levels.

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