Tracking Ant Diversity In The US With Citizen Science And Cookies
Gerard LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Researchers have combined cookies, citizen science and vigorous methods to track the diversity of different ant species in the United States. Along with international partners, global research is now being done to monitor how ants are moving and surviving in today’s world.
The paper, “Ecologists, educators, and writers collaborate with the public to assess backyard diversity in The School of Ants Project,” was published online July 7 in the open-access journal Ecosphere.
“We think our School of Ants project serves as a good model for how citizen science can be used to collect more data, more quickly, from more places than a research team could do otherwise, and our protocols help ensure that the data we are collecting are high quality,” said project head Dr. Andrea Lucky, co-lead author of the paper and researcher from the University of Florida, who started the School of Ants project while attending NC State as a postdoctoral researcher.
The project was developed at NC State to assist researchers on what ants live in what cities in the United States, focusing primarily on Chicago, Raleigh and New York City.
“But we also wanted to launch a citizen science project that both increased the public’s ecological literacy and addressed criticisms that public involvement made citizen science data unreliable,” added Dr. Amy Savage, a postdoctoral biological sciences researcher at NC State and the other co-lead author of the paper.
To assist the citizen scientists with the study, protocols were developed. Using Pecan Sandies cookies and sealable plastic bags, the researchers instructed the public on how to collect and label the ant samples before shipping them to NC State or UF.
This was designed for the public to enjoy their interaction in the research, which was the easiest solution for non-scientists to obtain, while limiting the chance of error from the public.
When the samples arrived at the two universities, they were sorted, identified and entered into a database. It was then released to the public in a user-friendly format at the schoolofants.org website, which allows the participants in the study to track the survey.
“This information is helping us tackle a variety of ecological and evolutionary questions, such as how ants may be evolving in urban environments, and how invasive species are spreading in the U.S.,” Savage says.
There were more than 1,000 contributors to the study that included samples from all 50 states since its launch in 2011.
An example of the findings, which was surprising to the researchers, was the venomous Asian needle ant (Pachycondyla chinensis) had spread thousands of miles farther than expected. It was known that the species inhabited the Southeast region of the United States, but samples of them came in from Wisconsin and Washington State.
The School of Ants project has now gone globally with participants in Italy and Australia. The researchers have also included teachers to implement the project to K-12 students. One teacher’s work led to a paper co-written by fourth and fifth graders.
“We’re optimistic that this project will give us a broader view of ant diversity and how these species intersect with us, where we live and work around the world,” Lucky says.
“We also collaborated with a science writer to produce a free series of iBooks featuring natural history stories about the most common ants that our citizen science partners are collecting in their backyards and sidewalks,” Savage added.
“One of our big goals now is to move from collecting data and finding patterns to identifying ways that we can work with the public to figure out what is driving those patterns,” says Dr. Rob Dunn, an associate professor of biological sciences at NC State and co-author of the paper.
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