Across the world, ants are among the first animals children learn to recognize. They are diverse, abundant, and ecologically important from the tops of canopy trees to the soil underfoot and from tropical rainforests to deserts and even backyards and playgrounds.
It may surprise you, then, to hear that we know very little about even the identity of those ant species that live closest to us – those sharing our cities and eating our discarded food. As a scientist, I’m fascinated about the lives of city ants and how they affect diversity and ecosystem services where people live and work. However, answering the basic question ‘What ant species live in America’s backyards and sidewalks?’ is an extraordinarily difficult task, at least for a scientist working alone.
One way to tackle this task — the approach we happily undertook — is to forge partnerships with the public (and taxonomists and science writers) from across the country (and now, the world) in the School of Ants Citizen Science Project.
Armed with cookies, resealable plastic bags and curiosity, people from every state in the USA collected ants from their backyards, schoolyards, and neighborhoods and sent them to us. Undergraduate students then diligently sorted ants, and regional experts identified the ants to species. We then uploaded these data to a database and created an interactive map where participants could see what species they (and other people) collected. Even Dr. Eleanor Spicer Rice got in on the School of Ants fun – in her Book of Common Ants, she shares natural history stories about the ant species most common in your collections. While this project is still ongoing, we are excited to announce the publication of the first scientific paper based on School of Ants collections, available free to anyone to download from Ecosphere today:
Andrea Lucky, Amy M. Savage, Lauren M. Nichols, Cristina Castracani, Leonora Shell, Donato A. Grasso, Alessandra Mori, and Robert R. Dunn 2014. Ecologists, educators, and writers collaborate with the public to assess backyard diversity in The School of Ants Project. Ecosphere 5:art78–art78. http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/ES13-00364.1
So . . . what did we find???
With collections from across the USA, we are starting to get a better picture of ant diversity across the country, although we are far from finished addressing this question (especially for the Midwestern states). Here are a few exciting findings we describe in the paper:
1. School of Ants collections from untrained participants (who only used the instructions found on our website schoolofants.org) were just as effective as collections from participants trained in Dr. Rob Dunn’s ant laboratory at NCSU. This result did not surprise us in the least, and demonstrates the high quality of the data collected by our citizen scientist partners.
2. Ant diversity can be quite high in cities, but there is a lot of variability between cities. Most of these differences are driven by native ant species. As an example, here is a map of relative ant diversity in our three most heavily sampled cities: Chicago, Raleigh-Durham, and New York City. Why is ant diversity so different in these cities? This is a new question that we are now able to consider, and we plan to continue work with our citizen science partners to study just that!
3. Citizen scientists can effectively document the range expansions of both native ant species and problematic invasive exotic ant species. For example, a group of fifth graders found Aphaenogaster miamiana at their Young Naturalists Day Camp in Winston-Salem, NC — This finding is the farthest north and east we’ve seen the species – typically it’s been restricted to more southern, coastal locations. More dramatically, School of Ants participants discovered Asian needle ants (Pachycondyla chinensis) thousands of miles beyond its known invaded range in North America.
Ant photos courtesy of Alex Wild.
What’s next for School of Ants?
We are still accepting samples from across the country in our regional processing centers in North Carolina and Florida (find out how to participate at schoolofants.org). We’re also very excited to announce that School of Ants has gone global! Please join us in welcoming our international partners in Australia and Italy — stay tuned for a blog post about their work in the coming weeks.
Our team is currently working with data collected by our citizen science partners to address questions about the ecology and evolution of ants and their close relationships with people.
We are also collaborating with teachers to develop classroom lessons inspired by the School of Ants project (see education.yourwildlife.org for more information). And finally, we are in the planning stages of the second phase of the School of Ants Project, in which we will work with public participants to design and conduct experiments aimed at understanding the factors (like food availability) that drive patterns in global ant diversity detected through first phase of the project.
Amy Savage is an ecologist who’s jazzed about ants and their beneficial relationships with other insects and plants. Her research on ant mutualisms has taken her to Samoa, New Zealand, Australia, Costa Rica, Panama, Washington State (USA), and most recently, to New York City (USA) with the School of Ants project. Follow her on Twitter @AmyMSavage.