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A report has been released from Binghamton University, State University of New York that connects the role of ants with the regrowth of forest. If one were to walk through an old-growth forest in early spring, they will surely be amazed by wildflowers, their jewel-like tones shining from the forest floor. But in newer forests, spring ephemerals such as trillium, wild ginger, violets and bloodroot are in shorter supply. The reason may lie with some less-flashy forest residents: Aphaenogaster sp., or the woodland ant.
“Not a lot of people have heard of them, but they are the powerhouse of moving seeds and called ‘keystone dispersers,’” explained Carmela Buono, a Binghamton University doctoral candidate in biological sciences.
More than 95% of New York state forests – including the Binghamton University Nature Preserve — are secondary forests, which sprung up on land once cleared for agriculture. While parts of these regenerated forests, such as the overstory, have recovered well, they are missing other aspects of biodiversity — particularly when it comes to understory plants such as native wildflowers.
Many plant species rely on a mutual relationship with ants to disperse their seeds. In fact, northeastern North America is one of the major hotspots of ant-plant mutualism, although it also happens in parts of Europe, Australia, South Africa and in northeastern Asia, Buono said.
“These plants evolved with seeds that have an appendage rich in fats attached to them, and that’s very attractive to woodland ants,” she said. “Ants need fats just as much as protein and sugar, and it’s hard to find foods rich in fats in the forest.”