Surveying Ant Diversity in Gorongosa National Park | HHMI BioInteractive

Surveying Ant Diversity in Gorongosa National Park | HHMI BioInteractive

SPEAKER 1: When we think of
conservation we typically focus on the big animals. But we may be
forgetting about some of the most important players
in an ecosystem, like ants. These insects likely
make up a greater biomass than all the large
vertebrates combined. LEANNE ALONSO: I’ve been
working on insect conservation for the last 10
years and most people use this IUCN red list
of threatened species to guide where we focus
our conservation efforts. But never, hardly ever, do
the ants get even considered for conservation action. SPEAKER 1: Ants perform critical
functions in many ecosystems. LEANNE ALONSO: They’re
eating other insects that might want to eat your plants. They are air in the soil
so your plants can grow. They’re scavenging,
cleaning up dead insects. They’re eating mosquitoes and
other bugs it might bother you. So they’re really providing
a big service out there. Not only for the
ecosystem but for people. But just– people
don’t realize that. SPEAKER 1: Leanne has
come to Gorongosa National Park, a vast
unexplored wilderness in central Mozambique to catalog
the different species ants. She’s part of a team
of scientists surveying Gorongosa diversity to establish
a baseline species census. They will compare this
data with ongoing surveys to assess the progress
of conservation actions. Because of ants
biomass, diversity, and roles in the
ecosystem they can serve as indicators of changing
environmental conditions. Leann started studying ants
as a student of world renowned biologist E.O. Wilson. E.O. WILSON: Holy Moses. Oh, my God. OK. Quick, quick quick. Oh, God. Let’s quickly get them. Oh, that’s completely new to me. SPEAKER 1: Yeah. LEANNE ALONSO: You know,
I was fortunate to work with E.O. Wilson for
my PhD work and that’s all I’ve got into ants. I told him I wanted to
go into conservation. And he told me that I
should get a good founding in biology and in
taxonomy of ants and then go into
conservation later. So that’s what I did. When I first saw an
ant in the microscope I couldn’t believe it. I was like, no way. Is that what they look like? Their heads are all different. Some are triangular. Some are square. Some are round. Some ants are totally smooth. No hair. Some ants have tons of hairs. Some have big spines
all over them. So I had no idea that any
of them looked like that. So many species out there that
we don’t know where they are. We don’t know what
they’re doing. We don’t know anything
about their behavior. And so there’s a lot of research
still to be done on them. SPEAKER 1: So how
do you study ants? LEANNE ALONSO: I
put out some baits. Just sugar water and
then a cotton ball. Some are sugar loving
that collect nectar from flowers or nectarines
on plants or the honey dew. And then I also put
on olive oil baits, because some ants
really like the fatty– fatty things usually they
would get in insects. So yeah, some ants which
are more predators, they like the protein. They’ll go for the
amino acid baits. But most ants are
kind of scavengers. So they would eat insects or
anything did that they find. Then I’m also, at the same time,
sifting the leaf litter around. And so this is our main
method of collecting ants because there’s lots of ants
living in the leaf litter and in the soil, but
you never see them because they are super tiny. The big stuff stays on the
top and all the little, mixed up, broken up
leaf litter and the ants and hopefully other
things go to the bottom. So I think this survey will
add quite a few species because these environments
haven’t really been sampled. SPEAKER 1: Leanne is looking for
ants that fill different niches and roles in the ecosystem and
one stood out above the rest. LEANNE ALONSO: So the other
day I was just looking around on the trees because there’s
a different ants on the ground than on the trees. So I was looking around on the
trees to see what I could find. And I just kind of
got lucky to found these really cool aunts
called Melissotarsus that live under the bark. Let me get the bark off. And luckily I was just– I saw a tiny head popping out. And what’s really
cool about this ant– and I’ve never seen it before– it can’t really walk. It never leaves this tree. So it’s a kind of
round, fat body. Little tiny legs
stick out the side so that it can walk, you know,
between the pieces of bark. SPEAKER 1: These
ants can’t forage for food outside their tree
and need a source of food inside it. So they farm other insects
called scale insects for their sugary
secretions and meat. Apart from humans, ants
are the only known animals to raise other animals for food. In this survey Leanne has
identified 125 species of ants and estimates
that Gorongosa may be home to well over 400
species, some new to science. LEANNE ALONSO: Often
in one square meter you could have up to 30
species of ants living, because they’re all in a
really different little niche. Look at like this riparian
forest we have here. It doesn’t look so different
than this open woodland that we have right
behind us here. And so the ants can really
tell you the micro differences between the environments. Whereas a lion might roam
through all this environment, the insects can really tell
you differences between them. And they’re very sensitive
to any changes in them. SPEAKER 1: Knowing how
many species of ants live in Gorongosa will
allow scientists to monitor any changes in ant
biodiversity, which could provide an
early warning sign of a shift in the ecosystem. Bigger animals aren’t as
sensitive to small changes in the environment as ants are. And they also
reproduce more slowly, so you can’t tell that they’re
being affected by a disturbance until the problem is much worse. Leanne and other
researchers will continue to study the
ant fauna of Gorongosa. Returning each year to compare
the number of ants species as they seek to
understand and manage the extraordinary
diversity of this park.

2 thoughts on “Surveying Ant Diversity in Gorongosa National Park | HHMI BioInteractive”

  1. The Park with its rich biodiversity is extraordinary but what is amazing is the passion of the scientists to observe, discover, and study in order to rebuild the park to the full and to the best!

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