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Gutierrez-Valencia, Juanita; Chomicki, Guillaume; Renner, Susanne S. (2017): Recurrent breakdowns of mutualisms with ants in the neotropical ant-plant genus Cecropia (Urticaceae). In: Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, Vol. 111: pp. 196-205
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Mutualisms could be evolutionarily unstable, with changes in partner abundances or in the spatial context of interactions potentially promoting their dissolution. We test this prediction using the defense mutualisms between species of the Neotropical genus Cecropia and Azteca ants. A new, multigene phylogeny with representatives of all five genera of Cecropieae (most of them from the Neotropics) and half of the 61 species of Cecropia shows the West African endemic Musanga (2 spp.) as sister to Cecropia, implying dispersal from the Neotropics to Africa, with a molecular clock suggesting that this occurred about 23 Mya. Cecropia, a genus of neotropical pioneer trees, started diversifying ca. 8 Mya. We infer a single origin of specialized symbiosis with Azteca within Cecropia, eight complete losses of this symbiosis, and a potential partner shift involving the replacement of Azteca by Neoponera luteola ants. Niche space modeling based on geo-referenced occurrences of over 9000 collections representing 58 of the 61 species of Cecropia, together with several comparative analyses, implies that mutualism loss is concentrated at high altitudes and on Caribbean islands, with the surprisingly frequent breakdowns potentially facilitated by low species-specificity of interacting Cecropia and Azteca mutualists.