An Important Question from a Citizen Scientist

“Can you tell me why it's important to collect data on these ants?”

This is a simple question we received by email last week from a family participating in School of Ants. I have to admit, I actually scanned our entire website, certain that we must have answered this in writing somewhere. Needless to say, I couldn’t find it – somehow we managed to overlook addressing this Very Important Question. I started crafting a brief response, and then four sentences turned into – well, a lengthier piece that I thought was important to share with all of you, as well as Shelli and her son.

Dear Shelli (and your son),

First of all, thank you for participating in the School of Ants! I’m delighted that you both enjoyed the experience.

And thank you for your question.

The data that you and your son have helped us collect, along with hundreds of other citizen scientists, is giving us valuable data about the diversity and distribution of ants across the United States.

Ants are ubiquitous. They are widespread and diverse, such that most people can easily pick out the ant when presented with a line-up of insect photos. Yet despite how familiar ants are to us and how often we may encounter them in our daily lives (sometimes more often than we would like), we actually know relatively little about their diversity and distribution, particularly in urban areas. The species we know the least about are the very same species that we interact with most frequently – those that are commonly found in backyards and on sidewalks, in street medians and on playgrounds.

Some of the species we are hoping to learn more about are exotic species – those that have been introduced from habitats outside of the United States. Many of these exotic species are considered harmful to ecosystems and people, and are termed invasive species. While invasive species tend to be better studied once they have become established and are causing havoc in an ecosystem, it’s hard to gather data about them in their earlier stages of introduction, before they have become widespread. This is where School of Ants participants can save the day! In fact, just this past year, young participants helped us determine that the Asian needle ant, a nasty invader well-known in the southeastern US, had expanded its range to Wisconsin and Washington State…Yikes!

We are also interested in the least studied of our native species, especially those that aren’t pests and are often overlooked. While some ants can be nuisances, many have beneficial roles in ecosystems. By digging tunnels they turn over dirt and aerate the soil. They can even help keep other pests at bay, including cockroaches, fleas and termites. Yet so little is known about their role in urban ecosystems! Some of the ant species crawling around on sidewalks in major cities haven’t even been named yet!

We’re harnessing the power of scientists to collect data across a much wider range than we could possibly sample on our own (although what a road trip that would be!). We are learning a great deal about the diversity and distribution of ants. We have already found cases of species living outside their previously described ranges. For example, a native seed-harvesting ant (Aphaenogaster miamiana), believed to live only as far north as South Carolina, was found by a participant in the Piedmont of North Carolina.

Studying the diversity and distribution of ants is not only relevant today, but can also help us understand how climate change, land use, and urbanization might affect ants in the future.

So thank you, again, for participating in the project and contributing your data!

Please let me know if you have any other questions!

All the best,

Lauren and the School of Ants Team