Article révisé par les pairs
Résumé : Myrmecochory is the process of seed dispersal by ants; however, it is highly challenging to study, mainly because of the small size of both partners and the comparatively large range of dispersal. The mutualistic interaction between ants and seeds involves the former retrieving diaspores, consuming their elaiosome (a nutrient-rich appendage), and the rejection of seeds from the nest. Here, we introduce a semi-automated method based on stitching high resolution images together, allowing the study of myrmecochory in a controlled environment over time. We validate the effectiveness of our method in detecting and discriminating seeds and ants. We show that the number of retrieved diaspores varies highly among colonies, and is independent of both their size and activity level, even though the dynamics of diaspore collection are correlated with the arrival of ants at the food source. We find that all retrieved seeds are rejected from the nest in a clustered pattern, and, surprisingly, they are also frequently redispersed within the arena afterwards, despite lacking elaiosome. This finding suggests that the dispersal pattern might be more complex and dynamic than expected. Our method unveils new insights on the mechanisms of myrmecochory, and could be usefully adapted to study other dispersal phenomena.