Evaluating the importance of trophobiosis in a Mediterranean ant community: a stable isotope analysis

K. Brewitt, J. Piñol, C. Werner, W. Beyschlag, X. Espadaler, N. Pérez Hidalgo, C. Platner

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9 Citations (Scopus)


© 2014, International Union for the Study of Social Insects (IUSSI). Trophobiosis between aphids (Aphididae, Hemiptera) and ants (Formicidae, Hymenoptera) is considered to provide an important source of nutrition for ants by aphid honeydew and aphids themselves used as prey. However, little is known about nutrient fluxes and the relative importance of trophobiosis for different ant species. Combining direct contact observations between ants and aphids with stable isotope analyses of distinct multitrophic sample sets (soil, plant, aphid, and ant), we aimed at disentangling the importance of trophobiosis in a Mediterranean food web and possible feedbacks on the functional diversity of ants in a species-rich organic Citrus plantation. We analyzed δ13C- and δ15N-values of sample sets for fertilized and natural soil, using the fertilizer as natural isotope label. The results showed trophic relationships between 18 host plant species, 22 aphid species, and 7 ant species. Direct observation revealed at least 40 different plant–aphid combinations and 25 aphid–ant combinations with a marked range of δ15N-values. However, the δ13C and δ15N isotope ratios still reflected the trophic levels. A significant correlation occurred between the isotope ratios of aphids and their host plants. However, no relationship was found between aphids and ants or between plants and ants revealing that many ant species do not exhibit a close relationship with their trophobiotic partners. Isotopic data allowed us to separate ant species into trophic functional groups and showed the relevance of other food resources. The applied fertilizer shifted the isotopic baseline for the whole trophic system. By combining the stable isotope analysis with the exact origin of the samples, we avoided a misleading interpretation of the high isotopic range of species. Thus, we emphasize the importance of considering a baseline in stable isotope food web studies.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)81-95
JournalInsectes Sociaux
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2014


  • Carbon
  • Citrus plantation
  • Formicidae
  • Functional groups
  • Homoptera
  • Nitrogen


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