Welcome to Ant Ecology and Other Adventures

Introduction

Gay Feather blooming in October at the Fort Worth Nature Center, Fort Worth, Texas

Gay Feather (Liatris sp.) blooming in October at the Fort Worth Nature Center, Fort Worth, Texas

My name is Ann Mayo and I am a doctoral candidate in ecology at the University of Texas at Arlington (in Arlington, Texas, Dallas-Fort Worth area) — soon to graduate (May 15, 2015). This is a first experiment in Open Notebook Science. While the content will focus on my research in ant ecology, I will also include natural history of ants, grasslands, and other organisms that live in these grasslands. Posts will often include photos and video.

The Comanche harvester ant foraging on a caterpillar in the Fort Worth Nature Center, Fort Worth, Texas

The Comanche harvester ant foraging on a caterpillar in the Fort Worth Nature Center, Fort Worth, Texas

About Ants: Ants are six-legged, wingless insects we do not invite on picnics. Seriously though, although ants can sting and may be pest and invasive species, ants are important members of ecosystems performing many different roles. Ants are important as prey and predators; some species have significant mutualistic relationships with plants, fungi, and other insects; and some species are ecosystem engineers greatly affecting the physical landscape and ecosystem function through their nesting and foraging activities. Notice, for instance, how the Comanche harvester ant (Pogonomyrmex comanche) changes the landscape by removing plants from the nest area (photo below).

Besides the ecological diversity just described, ants have great diversity in their life history patterns and morphology. (You can visit AntWeb to get a taste of the morphological diversity or Alex Wild Photography for some wonderful images of ants.) For instance:  An ant colony may have one queen or multiple queens and the queen is not really in charge. There are about 14,000 good species descriptions of ants and it is thought there are about 30,000 species of ants worldwide. The total mass of ants is thought to be equivalent to the total mass of people: that is a lot of ants!

The external nest of a Comanche harvester ant. The ants remove any plants from this nest yard area.

The external nest of a Comanche harvester ant. The ants remove any plants from this nest yard area.

My Research: For my doctoral research project, I am working on the spatial ecology of the Comanche harvester ant (Pogonomyrmex comanche) at the Fort Worth Nature Center  and Tandy Hills an Stratford Prairies in Fort Worth and the Southwest Nature Preserve in Arlington, Texas. This ant nests only in very deep sandy prairies surrounded by oak forests in Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas of the USA. This distribution raises questions concerning this ant’s population biology and biogeography. Locally, the Comanche harvester ant is not found throughout the prairies where it does nest. This restricted local distribution suggests that Comanche may be limited by queen dispersal ability or other factors.

I am also interested in ant diversity and ant assemblages (the ant species present in an area). By identifying the ants in these prairies, I may be able to infer the relationships among the ants, especially with respect to the Comanche harvester ant. Because of the diverse and important roles ants have, understanding these species may improve our management of grasslands, including the detection of changes in the health of grasslands through changes in the ant species present. I presented some preliminary work on the ant assemblage in the prairies of the Fort Worth Nature Center (Fort Worth, Texas) at the America’s Grassland Conference in August 2013.  You can view my comments about this conference and photos of the prairies I visited in Kansas in this open notebook and see a summary of my presentation in the conference proceedings.  As part of my interest in ant assemblages I am also involved in the newly formed research group, Ants of Texas.

I have started a project for observations of ants in Texas at iNaturalists, an on–line community of naturalists. I recommend this community to any with an interest in natural history. I will be sharing  photos, identifications, and natural history posts there. If you have such observations, join the community. They have a phone app as well.