Archive for the ‘Ecological Endeavors’ Category

When I tell friends and acquaintances that I studied the impact of bison on ants, a common first expectation is that the bison are stomping on or eating the tiny gals. This is not really the case (bison actually increase plant diversity, which is expected to indirectly increase ant diversity), but I’ve always thought the image of bison eating ants a rather amusing one:

 

Bison Eating Ants

But now, the joke’s on me: A recent study by Joshua Grinath et al. has shown that black bears increase the reproductive success of local plants by eating ants. As reported in a review in Science:

Grinath came upon another predator-plant connection while studying the partnership between ants and treehoppers on a common plant called rabbitbrush. These tiny sap-sucking insects secrete a sugary liquid the ants eat in return for taking care of the treehoppers. One summer, a bear moved into Grinath’s study site and started digging up the underground ant nests, eating both larvae and adults. So he decided to see what effect the bears had on his study subjects. …

The ants aren’t directly harming the plants, he and colleagues concluded after a series of field experiments. Instead, the presence of the ants scares off predatory insects, in turn enabling treehoppers and other plant-munching insects to thrive and take a serious toll on plant growth. “The ants are providing an enemy-free space for all these herbivores,” Grinath says.  Where bears have eaten the ants, predators return and help protect the plants, he and his colleagues reported online ahead of print in Ecology Letters.

Such indirect interaction cascades are part of what makes ecology so interesting, but also rather daunting. Grinath was lucky to have been in the right place at the right time to observe the bears eating ants (the more times I get to write that phrase, the better). Otherwise, who would have proactively investigated the impacts of bears eating ants? Bears eating ants is not something one expects. In fact, even this case of bears eating ants involves a relatively simple system with a limited scope – who knows the full breadth of impacts caused by bears eating ants? Plus, it took four years for the researchers to discover what they did about bears eating ants. Still, it is exciting to know that bears eat ants, and that this consumption is an important factor in the reproductive success of local plants.

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Last weekend, many people from OIST, myself included, traveled to the Hiji Falls in northern Okinawa. Before heading along the trail to the waterfall, I encountered this sign:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Despite a rainy morning, there was in fact an abundance of nature along the trail, perhaps energized by the afternoon sun. I unfortunately was not able to capture many in-focus shots of the various insects and other arthropods I encountered, but I did manage to get some photos of some interesting critters.

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As even some of my most avid readers may not know, I am currently in Okinawa, Japan as a research intern at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology. I am in the Biodiversity and Biocomplexity Unit headed by Evan Economo, my mentor from the University of Michigan. The lab is also known as “Arilab” – “ari” is a transliteration of the Japanese word for “ant”. Be sure to check out Arilab’s brand-new website created by lab member Sandrine Burriel, here.

In about a week I will be heading to Xishuangbanna in Yunnan, China to do a two-week collections trip with Benoit Guénard and Cong Liu, where we hope to find many interesting species of ants. Previous records from Xishuangbanna include some particularly cool-looking species like Harpegnathos venatorPolyrhachis bihamata, and Mystrium camillae:

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Although this blog has been following a strict radio silants protocol for the past two months, my life, in terms of exciting entomological endeavors, has been rather active of late. This is mostly due to the fact that I have been in New York for the past three weeks studying ants at the American Museum of Natural History. Under the mentorship of Dr. Ron Clouse, I am attempting to add some clarification to myrmecologists’ current understanding of the phylogenetic relationships between species of the confusing Camponotus maculatus group, primarily those currently living on various Pacific Islands. I am doing genetic and morphological analyses of specimens from archipelagos ranging from Christmas Island to the Cook Islands and collected by a variety of researchers. One of these researchers is, in fact, Dr. Evan Economo, my mentor of three years who just recently moved to Japan for his new position at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology.

The generous compensation offered as part of the REU program includes housing at Columbia University’s East Campus Hall. There’s a pretty nice view from my room in our 8th floor apartment:

Single Rainbow 'Cross the Sky?

This rainbow was, in fact, a double rainbow all the way across the sky:

Anyways, I hope to document many happenings in New York City including, but not limited to, ants in Central Park, ants in the subway, ants in Chinatown, ants in my lab, and ants in my pants. I’m kidding about the ants in the subway, of course.

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This Monday, we will be looking at hēimàijīnbāndié:

What is hēimàijīnbāndié? Here’s a hint:

This, obviously, is a Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus). The first two characters of the Mandarin word (hēimài) mean “black-veined”, and the third and forth together (jīnbān) mean “gold-spotted” or “gold-striped”. The last character (dié) is simply the second character in the word for butterflies as a group (dié). I think this is quite descriptive and self-explanatory!

I caught (and pinned) the above specimen at the UM Biological Station, which I attended during the summer of 2010. I also got to see a caterpillar of this species develop into a cocoon and later hatch into the characteristic “black-veined gold-spotted” butterfly, which, needless to say, wasn’t as cool as ants. But it was cool.

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As my most faithful followers already know, I am in Manhattan, Kansas researching the ant communities on Konza Prairie. But unlike I indicated here, I will not be able to study seed dispersal by ants, as most of the seeds have already been dispersed, and the level of myrmecochory is likely very low. So instead I have a new focus: the effect of elevation, bison grazing, fire, and time of year on ant populations on the prairie. I will be able to address these together by setting up pitfall traps along a transect at three elevations (classified broadly as high, middle, and low) on hills in varying watershed types (e.g. bison grazed/20 years since last burn, bison grazed/1 year since last burn, etc.).  For those of you who don’t already know, a pitfall trap is a trap that is a pitfall.

This project is nice because it involves answering some basic ecological questions in addition to allowing taxonomic identification of the ant populations present in the ecosystem. Technically, I could just separate out each species and label them as “morphospecies 1”, “morphospecies 2”, and so on, but my training in ant systematics will allow me to actually determine what species are on the prairie! I am also very excited because I will be constructing a couple of collections with some specimens of each of the species I have found, and I will be giving one to the museum at the University and another to be kept for further myrmecological research at Konza.

May the ants flow forth!

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Herp Hunting

Today, my REU group went with a herpetologist to find snakes, frogs, turtles, and other herpetofauna.  Below are some photos from the excursion:

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