School of Ants Update: Ant Ecology Lesson

You might recall that School of Ants is a citizen science program based at North Carolina State University (earlier post).

Last week I received the kit in the mail.

Each kit comes with four vials with blue caps, four vials with red caps and one large tube with an orange cap. The red and blue-capped vials come baited with cookie crumbs and are to be placed in specific setting. The orange-capped tube is for anything else you would like to have identified.

The next day I placed the open vials outside as directed.

The southern fire ants were happy to cooperate and soon were carting away bait.

I thought this was a perfect opportunity to learn more about ant ecology.

Ecologists who study interference competition often use baits. They recognize three strategies used by ants in finding and taking baits:

  • Opportunists- able to find baits quickly, but don’t defend it
  • Extirpators- may take longer to find bait, but recruit higher numbers and defend the bait (often have soldier caste)
  • Insinuators – ant species that are too small in size and number to be noticed by extirpators

In this case the southern fire ants found the baits quickly, and were also defending. They definitely fit the definition of extirpators.

What about the tiny rover ants that are also found in the yard? Are they small enough to be insinuators?

Notice the rover on the top of the vial? Those are fire ants on the rim.

Will the defender ignore the rover ant?

No, the defender fire ant charges the rover ant and chases it away.

Let’s take a look in another tube.

Once again the rover ant approaches from the top.

Along comes the fire ant…

and chases it away.

In the end, the southern fire ants were able to dominate the baits. Looks like rover ants are opportunists rather than insinuators, in spite of their small size and lower numbers.

The bottom line is that baited vials are definitely useful for learning more about the ants in your area.

I would recommend this project. You do need to provide an envelope and postage to send the vials back, but otherwise time is the main investment. If you decide to take part in School of Ants, I’d love to hear what you find out.

Reference:  Parr, C. L. and H. Gibb. Competition and the Role of Dominant Ants, Chapter 5. In: Lach, L. Parr, C.L. and K.L. Abbott., eds. 2010. Ant Ecology. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Citizen Science Projects About Ants

The opportunities to participate in citizen science projects are growing by leaps and bounds. The Network for Citizen Science has a good sampling of the projects, some of which you might find interesting. Projects range from beespotting to banding oystercatchers, and you can devote as little or as much time as you have available.

Of course we had to use the Project Finder on the website to find projects under the keyword “ants.” I found two projects that are both child/family friendly.

1. Bay Area Ant Survey

The first to come up was a survey of ants around the San Francisco Bay area, sponsored by the California Academy of Sciences. I had already mentioned this one in my post about the Ants at the California Academy of Sciences. This is a great project to take part in if you live in California.

2. School of Ants

This new project involves gathering samples of ants from urban areas throughout the United States and is open to virtually everyone. To participate you simply need to visit the website and order an ant sampling kit. The kit will contain vials with a cookie bait inside. Place the vials outside as instructed and then after an hour, send back any ants you have captured. The ants will be identified and recorded on a map. The good news is that the project is supposed to be carried out worldwide eventually, although I’m not sure how they are getting the samples through customs.

Looks like some of the members of the group, based at North Carolina State University, have already made some interesting discoveries.

I’d love to hear from you if you decide to participate, and be sure to let me know what you find out.

Cookie loving ants from Arizona

Cordyceps Fungi and Ants

Note:  The following post is not for the squeamish. You probably shouldn’t watch the videos right before lunch.

Seems like there has been a lot of press lately about the “zombie ants” caused by fungi of the genus Cordyceps. The afflicted ants stagger about before they die, hence the name “zombie.” At the time of death the ant typically attaches itself to a leaf and becomes a stiff fungal-spore salt shaker.

David Attenborough gives a good introduction to the fungus:

Of course, myrmecologists have known about Cordyceps for a long time, but the new interest has lead to some cool new discoveries. In the article by Bateman, it is suggested that the chemical produced by the fungus that makes the ant stumble around may be similar to LSD. Also, weaver ant workers may be able to recognize diseased individuals and may have some behaviors to cope.

The video that accompanies the Bateman article:

Do you think this research would have gotten as much press if they had merely said the ants were infected by a fungus?

For more information:

Daytime bites for zombie ants:  Final death grip for the living dead of the insect world comes at midday by Susan Milius at Science News explores fungal infection of Camponotus leonardi.

Green ant ‘zombies’ affected by deadly fungus attacked by slayers – latest scientific research by Daniel Bateman

Rover Ants Under Study

The tiny little rover ants, Brachymyrmex patagonicus, made the news a few weeks ago in an article in the Arizona Daily Star. Actually, it was about Javier Miguelena’s doctoral research on rover ants. During his research, Miguelena found that rover ants need added moisture to do well in the deserts of Arizona. By adding water to the landscape, people are encouraging survival of rover ants.

When my son found a colony of rover ants in a potted plant we had just purchased at a plant sale this weekend, we decided to do some research ourselves. We separated the rover ants from the soil. There were 312 rover ants and 9 cocoons. We never found a queen, but we didn’t remove all the soil from the plant’s roots either.

Wonder where we’ll find them next.