Abiotic factors control invasion by Argentine ants at the community scale
A prominent and unresolved question in ecology concerns why communities differ in their susceptibility to invasion. While studies often emphasize biotic resistance, it is less widely appreciated how the physical environment affects community vulnerability to invasion. In this study we performed field experiments to test how abiotic variation directly and indirectly influences the extent to which Linepithema humile Mayr (Argentine ants) invade seasonally dry environments in southern California. In controlled and replicated experiments involving drip irrigation, we demonstrate (i) that elevated levels of soil moisture increased both the abundance of Argentine ants and their ability to invade native ant communities and (ii) that cessation of irrigation caused declines in the abundance of Argentine ants and led to their withdrawal from previously occupied areas. Because drip irrigation stimulated plant growth, in an additional experiment we manipulated both soil moisture and plant cover to assess the direct vs. indirect effects of added water on the abundance of L. humile. Local abundance of Argentine ants increased in irrigated plots but was 38% higher in irrigated plots with plants compared to irrigated plots where plant growth was suppressed. The results of this experiment thus argue for a direct role of soil moisture in influencing Argentine ant abundance but suggest that that the indirect effects of added water may also be important. Our study illustrates more generally that fine-scale variation in the physical environment can control whether communities become invaded by non-native species and suggests that an understanding of community susceptibility to invasion will be improved by a better appreciation of interactions between the biotic and abiotic environment.