Interactions between aboveground vertebrate herbivores and subterranean yellow meadow ants (Lasius flavus) can drive plant community patterns in grassland ecosystems. Here, we study the relative importance of the presence of ants (L. flavus) and ant mounds under different simulated grazing regimes for biomass production and species composition in plant communities. We set up a greenhouse experiment using intact soil cores with their associated vegetation.
We found that plant biomass production in the short term was affected by an interaction between simulated grazing (clipping) and ant mound presence. Clipping homogenized production on and off mounds, while in unclipped situations production was higher off than on mounds. During the experiment, these differences in unclipped situations disappeared, because production on unclipped mounds increased. Plant species richness was on average higher in clipped treatments and patterns did not change significantly over the experimental period. Plant community composition was mainly affected by clipping, which increased the cover of grazing-tolerant plant species. The actual presence of yellow meadow ants did not affect plant community composition and production.
We conclude that the interaction between ant mounds and clipping determined plant community composition and biomass production, while the actual presence of ants themselves was not important. Moreover, clipping can overrule effects of ant mounds on biomass production. Only shortly after the cessation of clipping biomass production was affected by ant mound presence, suggesting that only under low intensity clipping ant mounds may become important determining plant production. Therefore, under low intensity grazing ant mounds may drive the formation of small-scale plant patches.