Variable interaction specificity and symbiont performance in Panamanian Trachymyrmex and Sericomyrmex fungus-growing ants

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Cooperative benefits of mutualistic interactions are affected by genetic variation among the interacting partners, which may have consequences for interaction-specificities across guilds of sympatric species with similar mutualistic life histories. The gardens of fungus-growing (attine) ants produce carbohydrate active enzymes that degrade plant material collected by the ants and offer them food in exchange. The spectrum of these enzyme activities is an important symbiont service to the host but may vary among cultivar genotypes. The sympatric occurrence of several Trachymyrmex and Sericomyrmex higher attine ants in Gamboa, Panama provided the opportunity to do a quantitative study of species-level interaction-specificity.

We genotyped the ants for Cytochrome Oxidase and their Leucoagaricus fungal cultivars for ITS rDNA. Combined with activity measurements for 12 carbohydrate active enzymes, these data allowed us to test whether garden enzyme activity was affected by fungal strain, farming ants or combinations of the two. We detected two cryptic ant species, raising ant species number from four to six, and we show that the 38 sampled colonies reared a total of seven fungal haplotypes that were different enough to represent separate Leucoagaricus species. The Sericomyrmex species and one of the Trachymyrmex species reared the same fungal cultivar in all sampled colonies, but the remaining four Trachymyrmex species largely shared the other cultivars. Fungal enzyme activity spectra were significantly affected by both cultivar species and farming ant species, and more so for certain ant-cultivar combinations than others. However, relative changes in activity of single enzymes only depended on cultivar genotype and not on the ant species farming a cultivar.

Ant cultivar symbiont-specificity varied from almost full symbiont sharing to one-to-one specialization, suggesting that trade-offs between enzyme activity spectra and life-history traits such as desiccation tolerance, disease susceptibility and temperature sensitivity may apply in some combinations but not in others. We hypothesize that this may be related to ecological specialization in general, but this awaits further testing. Our finding of both cryptic ant species and extensive cultivar diversity underlines the importance of identifying all species-level variation before embarking on estimates of interaction specificity.
Original languageEnglish
Article number244
JournalB M C Evolutionary Biology
Number of pages22
Publication statusPublished - 2014

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