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Title: Natural history and ecological effects on the establishment and fate of Florida carpenter ant cadavers infected by the parasitic manipulator Ophiocordyceps camponoti ‐ floridani

Ophiocordycepsfungi manipulate the behaviour of their ant hosts to produce a summit disease phenotype, thereby establishing infected ant cadavers onto vegetation at elevated positions suitable for fungal growth and transmission. Multiple environmental and ecological factors have been proposed to shape the timing, positioning and outcome of these manipulations.

We conducted a long‐term field study ofOphiocordyceps camponoti‐floridaniinfections ofCamponotus floridanusants—the Florida zombie ants. We propose and refine hypotheses on the factors that shape infection outcomes by tracking the occurrence of and fungal growth from hundreds of ant cadavers. We modelled and report these data in relation to weather, light, vegetation and attack by hyperparasites.

We investigated environmental factors that could affect the occurrence and location of newly manipulated ant cadavers. New cadaver occurrence was preferentially biased towards epiphyticTillandsiabromeliads, canopy openness and summer weather conditions (an interactive effect of temperature, humidity and precipitation). Furthermore, we suggest that incident light at the individual cadaver level reflects microhabitat choice by manipulated ants or selective pressure on cadaver maintenance for conditions that improve fungal survival.

We also asked which environmental conditions affect fungal fitness. Continued fungal development of reproductive structures and putative transmission increased with moist weather conditions (interaction of humidity and precipitation) and canopy openness, while being reduced by hyperparasitic mycoparasite infections. Moreover, under the most open canopy conditions, we found an atypicalOphiocordycepsgrowth morphology that could represent a plastic response to conditions influenced by high light levels.

Taken together, we explore general trends and the effects of various ecological conditions on host and parasite disease outcomes in the Florida zombie ant system. These insights from the field can be used to inform experimental laboratory setups that directly test the effects of biotic and abiotic factors on fungus–ant interactions or aim to uncover underlying molecular mechanisms.

Read the freePlain Language Summaryfor this article on the Journal blog.

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Functional Ecology
Medium: X Size: p. 886-899
["p. 886-899"]
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National Science Foundation
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