Ant–plant interaction in the Neotropical savanna: direct beneficial effects of extrafloral nectar on ant colony fitness
Mutualisms can be exploited by parasites—species that obtain resources from a partner but provide no services. Though the stability of mutualisms in the presence of such parasites is under intensive investigation, we have little information on life history traits that allow a species to be a successful mutualist or rather a parasite, particularly in cases where both are closely related. We studied the exploitation of Acacia myrmecophytes by the ant, Pseudomyrmex gracilis, contrasting with the mutualistic ant Pseudomyrmex ferrugineus. P. gracilis showed no host-defending behavior and had a negative effect on plant growth. By preventing the mutualist from colonization, P. gracilis imposes opportunity costs on the host plant. P. gracilis produced smaller colonies with a higher proportion of alates than did the mutualist and thus showed an “r-like” strategy. This appears to be possible because P. gracilis relies less on host-derived food resources than does the mutualist, as shown by behavioral and stable isotope studies. We discuss how this system allows the identification of strategies that characterize parasites of mutualisms.