Why Study Ants?

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on Wednesday, July 31, 2013.

Last week I wrote about the School of Ants, a project that anyone can participate in. Scientists at North Carolina State University and the University of Florida are asking citizens to assist them in collecting ants, particularly those in urban areas.  You can learn all about it at www.schoolofants.org.

As I wrote that column, I dashed off an e-mail to the School of Ants team knowing that they might not get back to me before my deadline.  I was right about the deadline, but I wasn’t expecting to get such a great response this week.  Lauren told me that after considering my question, she found it important enough to write a response as a blog post on their website. I thought you might enjoy reading it too, so I’m sharing it with you today.

My question was “Why is it important to collect data on ants?”  Here’s what she wrote:

First of all, thank you for participating in the School of Ants!  I’m delighted that you and your son enjoyed the experience.  And thank you for your question.

The data that you and your son have helped us collect, along with hundreds of other citizen scientists, is giving us valuable data about the diversity and distribution of ants across the United States.

Ants are ubiquitous.  They are widespread and diverse, such that most people can easily pick out the ant when presented with a line-up of insect photos.  Yet despite how familiar ants are to us and how often we may encounter them in our daily lives (sometimes more often than we would like) we actually know relatively little about their diversity and distribution, particularly in urban areas.  The species we know the least about are the very same species that we interact with most frequently – those that are commonly found in backyards and on sidewalks, in street medians and on playgrounds.

Some of the species we are hoping to learn more about are exotic species – those that have been introduced from habitats outside of the United States.  Many of these exotic species are considered harmful to ecosystems and people, and are termed invasive species. While invasive species tend to be better studied once they have become established and caused havoc in an ecosystem, it’s hard to gather data about them in their earlier stages of introduction, before they have become widespread.

This is where School of Ants participants can save the day! In fact, just this past year, young participants helped us determine that the Asian needle ant (http://www.schoolofants.org/species/1157), a nasty invader well-known in the southeastern US, had expanded its range to Wisconsin and Washington State. Yikes!

We are also interested in the least studied of our native species, especially those that aren’t pests and are therefore often overlooked.  While some ants can be nuisances, many have beneficial roles in ecosystems.  By digging tunnels they turn over dirt and aerate the soil.  They can even help keep other pests at bay, including cockroaches, fleas and termites.  Yet so little is known about their role in urban ecosystems!  Some of the ant species crawling around on sidewalks in major cities haven’t even been named yet!

We’re harnessing the power of citizen scientists to collect data across a much wider range than we could possibly sample on our own (although what a road trip that would be!). We are learning a great deal about the diversity and distribution of ants.  We have already found cases of species living outside their previously described ranges.  For example, a native seed-harvesting ant (Aphaenogaster miamiana), believed to live only as far north as South Carolina, was found by a participant in the piedmont of North Carolina (http://www.schoolofants.org/species/2105).

Studying the diversity and distribution of ants is not only relevant today, but can also help us understand how climate change, land use, and urbanization might affect ants in the future.

So thank you, again, for participating in the project and contributing your data! Please let me know if you have any other questions!

Best,

Lauren and the School of Ants Team

2 thoughts on “Why Study Ants?

  1. Thanks for sharing this, and the previous ant posts! I just started homeschooling my son who is just about to turn 6. We just started our curriculum this week. We are doing My Father’s World first grade and the science part for the first two weeks is sort of about ants, so I am excited to do this project with him. 🙂

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    1. Thank you so much for your comment, Kelly. I’m glad my posts are helpful to you. Please let me know if/when you do the project and how it goes! Our friends are using that same curriculum, so I’m familiar with it!

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