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Ant Populations Are Thriving Among Newly Planted, Non-Native Trees

Sep 10, 2015 12:41 PM EDT
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Forests now cover more than 13 percent of land in the United Kingdom, as opposed to five percent in 1990. The thing is, much of the new growth is non-native trees that were planted for the forestry industry. Therefore, it's notable that certain forest-dependent creatures, like northern hairy wood ants, seem to be thriving in these non-native plantings. For instance, the ants are doing well in North York Moors National Park, U.K., where thousands of non-native coniferous trees were planted over the last 60 years. This suggests that planting new trees throughout plantations could greatly benefit forest-dependent species.

"The northern hairy wood ant is a keystone species in forests because it supports a wide range of birds and invertebrates. Some of the latter are only found in the wood ants' nests which, as they are large mounds of organic matter, play an important role in the decomposition cycle of the forest," Duncan Procter, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Biology at the University of York, said in a news release.

Procter mapped more than 5,500 ant nests that were mostly on the edges of coniferous plantations in the park. This ant species, Formica lugubris, is also considered near threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resource (IUCN), according to the release.

However, it took some time for the ants to get used to their new habitat. The researchers found that populations of the wood ants have only spread 800 meters from where the forests originally were, the release noted.

"Our work reveals that Formica lugubris has not yet spread through all available suitable habitat due to its very poor dispersal ability, displaying a severe lag behind the availability of new habitat," Procter explained in the release. "We believe, therefore, that we should re-assess the idea that a coniferous monoculture is bad for diversity. Forest managers should not assume that unoccupied habitat is unsuitable if species have not yet had a chance to disperse to it nor should they expect to see immediate colonization of plantations. Future forest creation should be targeted close to existing woodland to facilitate colonization by these forest specialists. Just because you don't see a species in a particular location at the moment doesn't mean it's not a good habitat for it."

Their findings were recently published in the journal Forest Ecology and Management

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