Effect of fragmentation, habitat loss and within-patch habitat characteristics on ant assemblages in semi-arid woodlands of eastern Australia
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The reliability of ants as bioindicators of ecosystem condition is dependent on the consistency of their response to localised habitat characteristics, which may be modified by larger-scale effects of habitat fragmentation and loss. We assessed the relative contribution of habitat fragmentation, habitat loss and within-patch habitat characteristics in determining ant assemblages in semi-arid woodland in Queensland, Australia. Species and functional group abundance were recorded using pitfall traps across 20 woodland patches in landscapes that exhibited a range of fragmentation states. Of fragmentation measures, changes in patch area and patch edge contrast exerted the greatest influence on species assemblages, after accounting for differences in habitat loss. However, 35% of fragmentation effects on species were confounded by the effects of habitat characteristics and habitat loss. Within-patch habitat characteristics explained more than twice the amount of species variation attributable to fragmentation and four times the variation explained by habitat loss. The study indicates that within-patch habitat characteristics are the predominant drivers of ant composition. We suggest that caution should be exercised in interpreting the independent effects of habitat fragmentation and loss on ant assemblages without jointly considering localised habitat attributes and associated joint effects.