Testing the predictive value of functional traits in diverse ant communities

Kim I. Drager, Michael D. Rivera, Joshua C. Gibson, Selina A. Ruzi, Priscila E. Hanisch, Rafael Achury, Andrew V. Suarez

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Associating morphological features with ecological traits is essential for understanding the connection between organisms and their roles in the environment. If applied successfully, functional trait approaches link form and function in an organism. However, functional trait data not associated with natural history information provide an incomplete picture of an organism's role in the ecosystem. Using data on the relative trophic position of 592 ant (Formicidae) samples comprising 393 species from 11 subfamilies and 19 widely distributed communities, we tested the extent to which commonly used functional proxies (i.e., morphometric traits) predict diet/trophic position as estimated from stable isotopes (δ15N). We chose ants as a group due to their ubiquity and abundance, as well as the wealth of available data on species traits and trophic levels. We measured 12 traits that have previously been identified as functionally significant, and corrected trait values for size and evolutionary history by using phylogenetically corrected trait residuals. Estimated trophic positions varied from 0.9 to 4.8 or roughly 4 trophic levels. Morphological data spanned nearly the entire size range seen in ants from the smallest (e.g., Strumigenys mitis total length 1.1 mm) to the largest species (e.g., Dinoponera australis total length 28.3 mm). We found overall body size, relative eye position, and scape length to be informative for predicting diet/trophic position in these communities, albeit with relatively weak predictive values. Specifically, trophic position was negatively correlated with body size and positively correlated with sensory traits (higher eye position and scape length). Our results suggest that functional trait-based approaches can be informative but should be used with caution unless clear links between form and function have been established.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere10000
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2023


  • Formicidae
  • dN
  • morphology
  • phylogeny
  • stable isotopes
  • trophic position

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation
  • Ecology


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