Three-Minute Thesis Competition at the University of New England, Armidale

For me, it’s important that I can clearly see the relevance and application of what my research is aiming to achieve – the bigger picture, so to speak.

It may seem ironic then that I’m studying a family of animals that can often only be identified to species level using a microscope – ants!

E. O. Wilson has done for myrmecology what Sir David Attenborough has done for natural history, but many of you may not know who he is.

Wilson coined the phrase “the little things that run the world” and wrote perhaps one of the most sobering paragraphs I’ve ever read. You can read it yourself below.

These 46 words have cemented my decision to undertake a Masters research project about the impact a novel or warmer environment might have on ant nest development and, by extension, on the ant-mediated ecosystem services and disservices provided by native and invasive species.

Broadly, ants provide a range of benefits, such as provisioning, regulating, cultural, and supporting services, including soil structure and aeration, nutrient cycling, seed dispersal, decomposition, and they are also useful as bioindicators.

But ants – especially invasive species – can also have negative impacts on human health, our food, our plants and crops, infrastructure, native ants, other invertebrate taxa, vertebrates, seed dispersal, and soil properties.

These little critters are toiling away under our feet, in our walls, in our sugar bowls, all in the face of climate change, and I don’t think we – as in the human species – quite understand what services we stand to lose and what disservices we might unwittingly gain.

I don’t propose to answer all of these questions – I’m only one person after all – but through my research I hope to bring more attention to these issues, starting with a field transplant experiment, where we are going to relocate native meat ant colonies from the New England region into hotter-wetter and hotter-drier climates along a new east-west transect from Coffs Harbour to the Warrumbungles.

We also aim to do the same along the North Australian Tropical Transect, an established north-south transect that is part of the national Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network.

From these experiments, I hope to gather information about how our translocated meat ants compete for resources with local populations of meat ants, as well as other species that may be present, both native and invasive. We’re also planning to measure ant metabolic rates – apparently it can be done – and I hoping to be able to tell you all about it at the next Three-Minute Thesis competition.