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Journal of Arid Land  2021, Vol. 13 Issue (3): 303-316    DOI: 10.1007/s40333-021-0006-4
Research article     
Plant community dynamics in arid lands: the role of desert ants
Department of Ecological Engineering, Faculty of Natural Resources, University of Jiroft, Jiroft 7867161167, Iran
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Ants (Formicidae, Hymenoptera) play an important role in seed bank, seedling establishment and plant composition of arid ecosystems. Thus, knowing plant-ant interaction provides useful information for managers to design restoration and conservation plans. In this study, the roles of desert harvester ants (Messor intermedius and Messor melancholicus) and scavenger ants (Cataglyphis nodus and Lepisiota semenovi) on plant communities were investigated in arid ecosystems of southeastern Iran. Two vegetation types were distinguished in the study area and the nest density of ant species was determined. Furthermore, plant composition and soil seed bank were estimated at different distances from the ant nests. Results showed that the density of M. intermedius and M. melancholicus nests was higher in dwarf shrub-shrub vegetation type and the density of C. nodus and L. semenovi nests was higher in dwarf shrub vegetation type. The harvester and scavenger ants had enhanced the seed bank to 55% and 70%, respectively. Therefore, the role of scavenger ants on the plant communities' seed bank was greater than that of harvester ants. Although the scavenger ants were more influential on the annuals and the invasive plant species, the radius impact of the harvester ants on the perennials was greater, i.e., a positive interaction existed between the perennial plants and the harvester ants. C. nodus and L. semenovi played an important role in enhancing the ecosystem's potential for restoration through establishment of pioneer species in early stage of succession. The activity of M. intermedius is crucial for the development and maintenance of climax plant communities in arid ecosystems through assisting the plant species' establishment in late stage of succession. It is essential to preserve the diversity of these key ant species for the maintenance and sustainability of shrubs in arid ecosystems.

Key wordsants      ecological succession      ecosystem      rangelands      shrubs      vegetation     
Received: 20 August 2020      Published: 10 March 2021
Corresponding Authors: Mohsen SHARAFATMANDRAD     E-mail:
About author: * Mohsen SHARAFATMANDRAD (E-mail:
Cite this article:

Mohsen SHARAFATMANDRAD, Azam KHOSRAVI MASHIZI. Plant community dynamics in arid lands: the role of desert ants. Journal of Arid Land, 2021, 13(3): 303-316.

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Fig. 1 Location of the study area and vegetation type in the Baqbazm Watershed, Iran. Dwarf shrub is Artemisia sieberi and dwarf shrub-shrub is Artemisia sieberi-Pteropyrum aucheri.
Vegetation type Elevation (m) Area (km2) Soil type Grazing intensity Dominant plant species
Dwarf shrub 2126 92 Sandy clay Medium Artemisia sieberi
Dwarf shrub-shrub 2346 112 Sandy loam Medium Artemisia sieberi-Pteropyrum aucheri
Table 1 Vegetation type in the Baghbazm Watershed, Iran
Plant species Family Life form Vegetation type Palatability Abbreviation Successional stage
DSh DSh-Sh
Aellenia subaphylla (C.A.M.) Botsch Chenopodiaceae Ch * * III A.sub Pioneer
Alhagi camelorum Boiss. et Bh. Fabaceae Ch * III Pioneer
Artemisia sieberi Besser. Asteraceae Ch * * II A.sie Late-successional
Boissiera squarrosa (Banks&Sol.) Nevski. Poaceae Th * III B.sqr Pioneer
Bromus tectorum L. Poaceae Th * * III B.tec Pioneer
Acanthophyllum macrodon Edgew. Caryophyllaceae Ch * III A.mac Late-successional
Eruca sativa Miller Brassicaceae Th * * III E.sat Early-successional
Ferula assa-foetida L. Apiaceae Hem * II F.ass Late-successional
Peganum harmala L. Zygophyllaceae Hem * III P.har Pioneer
Pteropyrum aucheri Jaub .et. Sp. Polygonaceae Ph * II P.auc Late-successional
Salsola brachiata Pall Chenopodiaceae Th * * III S.bra Pioneer
Salsola kali L. Chenopodiaceae Th * III S.kal Early-successional
Scariola orientalis L. Asteraceae Ch * III S.ori Late-successional
Echinops ritrodes Bunge Asteraceae Hem * * III E.rit Early-successional
Launaea acanthodes (Boiss.) O.Kuntze Asteraceae Ch * II L.aca Pioneer
Zygophyllum fabago L. Zygophyllaceae Ph * II Z.fab Late-successional
Gundelia tournefortii L. Asteraceae Hem * II G.tou Early-successional
Eremurus persicus (Jaub&Spach) Boiss. Liliaceae Ge * * II E.per Late-successional
Cousinia nekarmanica Rech.f. Asteraceae Th * * III C.nek Pioneer
Taraxacum roseum Bornm. ex Hand.-Mazz. Asteraceae Th * * I T.ros Late-successional
Oryzopsis holciformis (M.Bieb.) Hack. Poaceae Hem * III O.hol Late-successional
Euphorbia denticulata Lam. Euphorbiaceae Th * III E.den Early-successional
Bromus dantoniae Trin. Poaceae Th * * III B.dan Early-successional
Centaurea virgata Lamarck. Asteraceae Th * * III C.vir Early-successional
Nepeta heliotropifolia Lam. Lamiaceae Hem * II N.hel Late-successional
Stipa barbata Desf. Poaceae Hem * * II Late-successional
Noaea mucronata (Forssk.) Asch.& Schweinf. Chenopodiaceae Ch * III N.muc Early-successional
Hertia angustifolia (DC.) Kuntze Asteraceae Ph * * II H.ang Late-successional
Stachys inflata Benth. Lamiaceae Th * * II S.inf Late-successional
Table 2 Plant species, family, life form, palatability class and successional stage in two vegetation types
Fig. 2 Nest density of different ant species in two vegetation types., Messor intermedius; M.mel, Messor melancholicus; C.nod, Cataglyphis nodus; L.sem, Lepisiota semenovi. Bars are standard deviations. Different lowercase letters indicate significant differences between two vegetation types within the same ant at P<0.05 level.
Fig. 3 Distribution of plant species, and harvester and scavenger ants along two first axes of principal component analysis (PCA)., Messor intermedius; M.mel, Messor melancholicus; C.nod, Cataglyphis nodus; L.sem, Lepisiota semenovi.
Vegetation type Ant nests and control site Density (individuals/m2) Canopy cover
Shannon's diversity Richness
Dwarf shrub L.sem 0.73±0.64a 10.40±1.69a 0.82±0.81a 7.42±3.63a
C.nod 0.61±0.34a 9.76±1.24a 0.70±0.63a 6.50±4.72a 0.95±0.68b 24.81±2.60b 1.38±0.85b 5.43±2.69a
M.mel 0.82±0.72a 17.30±2.60b 1.42±0.86b 5.63±3.75a
Control 0.49±0.33c 2.73±1.64c 0.43±0.35c 3.21±1.73b
Dwarf shrub-shrub L.sem 0.86±0.47a 11.27±1.61a 1.40±0.59a 8.26±1.69a
C.nod 0.72±0.35a 11.47±0.23a 0.93±0.43b 6.40±6.39a 1.79±0.88b 15.23±2.16b 0.82±0.39b 6.12±3.19a
M.mel 1.12±0.65b 14.57±3.59b 0.74±0.69b 5.42±2.79a
Control 0.48±0.31c 3.23±2.74c 0.40±0.29ac 2.21±1.35b
Table 3 Density, canopy cover, Shannon's diversity index and richness of seedlings near ant nests and control site in two vegetation types
Plant species Dwarf shrub-shrub (individuals/m2) Dwarf shrub (individuals/m2)
L.sem C.nod M.mel Control L.sem C.nod M.mel Control
A.sub 0.3±0.1 0 0.8±0.6 0.5±0.2 0 0.7±0.2 1.8±0.7 1.7±0.6 0 0 1.3±1.2 1.6±1.3 0 0 0.6±0.3 0.7±0.4 0.6±0.3 0 0 0
A.sie 4.1±3.5 2.7±1.1 6.8±4.4 5.3±0.1 1.3±0.7 8.2±2.1 8.3±2.8 11.3±10.7 9.5±8.4 3.3±2.8
B.sqr 2.3±1.1 1.5±1.3 0.8±0.6 0 0.3±0.2 3.4±2.5 2.1±1.6 0 0 0.4±0.3
B.tec 1.4±1.6 1.5±0.7 0.5±0.3 0 0 1.8±1.2 1.4±0.7 0 0 0.7±0.4
A.mac 0 0.5±0.1 1.2±0.6 0.5±0.3 0.3±0.1 0 0 2.1±1.7 1.3±1.2 0
E.sat 0.6±0.1 0 0 0 0 0 0.4±0.1 0 0 0
F.ass 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0. 6±0.1 0 0
P.har 0.6±0.3 0.5±0.2 0 0 0 0 0.8±0.2 0 0 0.6±0.4
P.auc 0.7±0.2 0.6±0. 4 4.5±1.3 2.6±1.2 0.5±0.2 0 0 0 0 0
S.bra 0.4±0.3 0 0 0 0 1.3±0.9 0.8±0.5 0 0 0.5±0.4
S.kal 0 0.3±0.1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
S.ori 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1.3±0.8 0.9±0.6 0
E.rit 0.8±0.6 0 0 0 0 1.3±0.7 1.2±0.6 0 0 0.6±0.5
L.aca 0 0 0 0 0 0.3±0.1 0.5±0.2 0 0 0
Z.fab 0 0 0.9±0.2 0 0 0 0 1.8±1.3 1.3±1.1 0.7±0.5
G.tou 0.4±0.3 0.6±0.4 0 0 0.6±0.2 0 0.8±0.4 0 0 0
E.per 0 0 0.6±0.2 0.3±0.1 0 0 0 0.4±0.3 0 0
C.nek 0.4±0.2 0.5±0.3 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
T.ros 0 0.6±0.2 0 0.5±0.4 0 0 0.6±0.2 0 1.4±0.6 0.4±0.2
O.hol 0.4±0.1 0.5±0.3 0 0 0.3±0.2 0.8±0.2 0.6±0.4 0 0 0
E.den 0.7±0.3 0.6±0.2 0 0 0.2±0.1 0 0.3±0.1 0 0 0.5±0.2
B.dan 0 0 0 0 0.4±0.1 0 0 0 0 0
C.vir 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.6±0.3 0 0.5±0.3
N.hel 0 0 0.5±0.4 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.8±0.7 0 0 0 0.7±0.3 0.2±0.1 0 0.8±0.6
N.muc 0 0.3±0.1 0 0 0 0.6±0.5 0 0 0 0
H.ang 0 0 0.8±0.7 0.6±0.3 0 0 0 0.9±0.3 0.7±0.4 0.5±0.2
S.inf 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.7±0.4 0.8±0.6 0 0
Table 4 Density of seed bank near ant nests and control site in two vegetation types
Fig. 4 Density of pioneer, early- (a) and late-successional (b) species in different distances from nests of harvester and scavenger ants. Bars indicate standard deviations.
Item L.sem C.nod M.mel
Plant attribute AIC=345.67;
Residual deviance=408.3
Palatability 1.03ns 2.43ns 37.98** 26.65**
Life form 5.32* 5.21* 7.23* 6.23*
Abundance of invasive plants 7.23* 14.12** 1.23ns 1.65ns
Vitality 2.34ns 6.23* 23.43** 13.23**
Habitat fragmentation -16.23** -21.32** -58.23** -32.12**
Seed bank 5.23* 5.47* 1.15ns 0.79ns
Litter 6.53* 7.53* 6.14* 2.13ns
Species diversity 12.12** 13.32** 4.32* 5.23*
Species richness 5.13* 6.32** 5.23* 5.12*
Table 5 Result of generalized linear model (GLM) for the relationship between ecosystem structural attribute and density of four ant species
Item Pioneer and early-successional species Late-successional species
Species Nest Species Nest
F P value F P value F P value F P value
Vegetation type 0.15 0.854 0.11 0.892 2.82 0.101 2.12 0.231
Log distance from nest 5.85 0.003 16.87 0 12.32 0 17.26 0
Log nest density 3.98 0.043 2.2 0.107 4.65 0.005 4.13 0.006
Ant type 29.79 0 13.85 0 25.65 0 18.85 0
Log distance from nest×Log nest density 1.34 0.432 0.87 0.532 1.65 0.321 1.76 0.316
Log distance from nest×Ant type 18.43 0 14.72 0 21.76 0 15.76 0
Vegetation type×Log distance from nest 0.56 0.734 0.43 0.768 1.86 0.321 2.65 0.212
Vegetation type×Log nest density 0.02 0.987 0.11 0.893 1.12 0.476 1.16 0.453
Vegetation type×Ant type 2.76 0.123 2.16 0.236 1.43 0.412 1.54 0.328
Table 6 Results of ANCOVA (covariance analysis) for vegetation type, log nest density, ant type and log distance from nest in pioneer, early- and late-successional species
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