The decomposition of leaf litter is governed, in part, by litter invertebrates. In tropical rain forests, ants are dominant predators in the leaf litter and may alter litter decomposition through the action of a top-down control of food web structure. The role of ants in litter decomposition was investigated in a Costa Rican lowland rain forest with two experiments. In a mesocosm experiment, we manipulated ant presence in 50 ambient leaf-litter mesocosms. In a litterbag gradient experiment, Cecropia obtusifolia litter was used to measure decomposition rate constants across gradients in nutrients, ant density and richness, with 27 separate litterbag treatments for total arthropod exclusion or partial arthropod exclusion. After 2 mo, mass loss in mesocosms containing ants was 30.9%, significantly greater than the 23.5% mass loss in mesocosms without ants. In the litter bags with all arthropods excluded, decomposition was best accounted by the carbon: phosphorus content of soil (r2 = 0.41). In litter bags permitting smaller arthropods but excluding ants, decomposition was best explained by the local biomass of ants in the vicinity of the litter bags (r2 = 0.50). Once the microarthropod prey of ants are permitted to enter litterbags, the biomass of ants near the litterbags overtakes soil chemistry as the regulator of decomposition. In concert, these results support a working hypothesis that litter-dwelling ants are responsible for accelerating litter decomposition in lowland tropical rain forests.
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