Does the mutualism between wood ants (Formica rufa group) and Cinara aphids affect Norway spruce growth?

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Ant-aphid mutualisms, in which ants tend aphids, which in turn provide honeydew to the ants, are widespread and have been shown to affect plant growth. In boreal forests the effect of ant-aphid mutualism on tree growth can vary with stand age, because forest clear-cutting harms the ecologically most dominant ant partner in such mutualisms, wood ants (Formica rufa group). We studied whether the mutualism between wood ants and Cinara aphids affects the growth of boreal Norway spruces (Picea abies L. Karst.) in stands of different ages. In boreal forests, conifers, unlike deciduous trees, have only few defoliating insects, and therefore we expected the growth loss of conifers due to sap sucking by aphids not to be compensated by reduced insect herbivory due to predation by wood ants. The study was conducted in medium-fertile spruce-dominated stands in eastern Finland. We used stands of four different age classes (5, 30, 60 and 100 years) and selected ten spruces heavily visited and ten spruces lightly visited by ants around five medium-sized ant mounds in each stand age class. The access of ants was blocked on half of the trees in both groups. In the 5-year-old stands, the mean annual height growth of individual heavily visited seedlings was 16.3% greater than in the ones where ant traffic was blocked, but this difference was not significant. In the 30-year-old stands, the mean annual radial growth of the heavily visited spruces was 7.3% smaller than in trees where ant traffic was blocked, and this difference was significant. The mutualism had no significant effect on the radial growth in the 60- and 100-year-old stands. In the 60-year-old stands, however, the spruces that were visited heavily prior to the beginning of the study grew significantly less relative to their past growth than the initially lightly visited trees during the study. This suggests that the ant-aphid mutualism may have long-term effects on tree growth. The ant-aphid mutualism had no significant effect on the growth at the stand level. The results indicate that ant-aphid mutualism can have a significant effect on the growth of individual spruces, but the effect is negligible at ecosystem level. © 2008 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

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Forest Ecology and Management