Identifying Shifts in Leaf-Litter Ant Assemblages (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) across Ecosystem Boundaries Using Multiple Sampling Methods

Global or regional environmental changes in climate or land use have been increasingly implied in shifts in boundaries (ecotones) between adjacent ecosystems such as beech or oak-dominated forests and forest-steppe ecotones that frequently co-occur near the southern range limits of deciduous forest biome in Europe. Yet, our ability to detect changes in biological communities across these ecosystems, or to understand their environmental drivers, can be hampered when different sampling methods are required to characterize biological communities of the adjacent but ecologically different ecosystems. Ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) have been shown to be particularly sensitive to changes in temperature and vegetation and they require different sampling methods in closed vs. open habitats. We compared ant assemblages of closed-forests (beech- or oak-dominated) and open forest-steppe habitats in southwestern Carpathians using methods for closed-forest (litter sifting) and open habitats (pitfall trapping), and developed an integrated sampling approach to characterize changes in ant assemblages across these adjacent ecosystems. Using both methods, we collected 5,328 individual ant workers from 28 species. Neither method represented ant communities completely, but pitfall trapping accounted for more species (24) than litter sifting (16). Although pitfall trapping characterized differences in species richness and composition among the ecosystems better, with beech forest being most species poor and ecotone most species rich, litter sifting was more successful in identifying characteristic litter-dwelling species in oak-dominated forest. The integrated sampling approach using both methods yielded more accurate characterization of species richness and composition, and particularly so in species-rich forest-steppe habitat where the combined sample identified significantly higher number of species compared to either of the two methods on their own. Thus, an integrated sampling approach should be used to fully characterize changes in ant assemblages across ecosystem boundaries, or with vegetation change over time, and particularly so in species-rich habitats such as forest-steppe ecotones.