Food selection by foragers is sensitive to the availability of resources, which may vary along geographical gradients. Hence, selectivity of food types by foragers is expected to track these resource gradients. Here we addressed this hypothesis and asked if foraging decisions of seed-eating ants differ along a geographic gradient of habitat productivity. The study was carried out for two years at five sites along a natural climatic gradient, ranging from arid to Mediterranean, where plant productivity varies six-fold across a short geographic distance of 250 km. We found that in ant colonies of the genus Messor, collective foraging decisions differed along the gradient. Specifically, at the high-productivity sites, a stronger association was found between plant seed availability and selectivity, suggesting that colonies respond more accurately to within-patch variation in food amounts. In contrast, colonies in low-productivity sites foraged in patches with higher concentration of seeds, suggesting that they respond more accurately to among-patch variation in food amounts. Moreover, at the high-productivity sites, colonies were more discriminating in their choice of food and preferred bigger seeds, while in the low-productivity sites, where smaller seeds were relatively more abundant, food collection depended mostly on seed availability. An experiment with artificial seed patches performed along the same climatic gradient, revealed no difference in food selectivity across sites when food type and availability were similar, and a general preference for bigger over medium-sized seeds. Overall, our findings suggest that resource availability is an important factor explaining food choice along a climatic gradient and imply that in low-productivity regions small-seeded species incur high predation pressure, whereas in high-productivity regions, large-seeded species suffer higher predation. This could have important consequences for plant species composition, particularly at the face of climate change, which could dramatically alter the foraging decisions of granivores.
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© 2020 The Authors. Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd
- foraging behaviour
- geographic gradient
- propagule length
- propagule mass
- resource availability