Dramatic differences in gut bacterial densities help to explain the relationship between diet and habitat in rainforest ants
Abundance is a key parameter in microbial ecology, and important to estimates of potential metabolite flux, impacts of dispersal, and sensitivity of samples to technical biases such as laboratory contamination. However, modern amplicon-based sequencing techniques by themselves typically provide no information about the absolute abundance of microbes. Here, we use fluorescence microscopy and quantitative PCR as independent estimates of microbial abundance to test the hypothesis that microbial symbionts have enabled ants to dominate tropical rainforest canopies by facilitating herbivorous diets, and compare these methods to microbial diversity profiles from 16S rRNA amplicon sequencing. Through a systematic survey of ants from a lowland tropical forest, we show that the density of gut microbiota varies across several orders of magnitude among ant lineages, with median individuals from many genera only marginally above detection limits. Supporting the hypothesis that microbial symbiosis is important to dominance in the canopy, we find that the abundance of gut bacteria is positively correlated with stable isotope proxies of herbivory among canopy-dwelling ants, but not among ground-dwelling ants. Notably, these broad findings are much more evident in the quantitative data than in the 16S rRNA sequencing data. Our results help to resolve a longstanding question in tropical rainforest ecology, and have broad implications for the interpretation of sequence-based surveys of microbial diversity.
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