Ants are among the most abundant, diverse, and ecologically dominant groups of animals in the world, yet they have rarely been the focus of intensive biotic inventories and their diversity and distribution patterns are poorly known. Because of their significance in community dynamics and ecosystem processes, a better understanding of their diversity would greatly enhance our grasp of the biogeography, organization and dynamics of tropical communities.
I am currently measuring the diversity and distribution patterns of ants in Amazonian Ecuador. My site is located at the Tiputini Biodiversity Station in Western Amazonian Ecuador. I have collected over 100,000 individual ants, which I am currently in the process of identifying. My collection methods include pitfall traps, baiting, Winklers, hand collecting, subterranean probes, and canopy fogging. My goal is to complete the first systematic survey of the ant fauna of Amazonian Ecuador, including ants occupying traditionally sampled habitats such as forest canopy and litter, as well as the previously ignored subsurface strata. This will allow me to collect ants from the broadest possible array of microhabitats and will make this inventory the most complete stratified collection of Amazonian ants available. Pilot sampling indicates that new species and new records for species and genera are common discoveries. The creation of a digital catalog and image database of the ants of Ecuador will complement and enhance the significance and breadth of impact of my research. As of April, 2006 I have pinned about 7000 specimens, which have so far been identified to ~350 species, comprising 64 genera. I expect the number of species to rise substantially as I begin to wade through some of the more diverse (and difficult) genera.
Ant identifications will allow me to :
- Explore correlations between ant distribution patterns and ecological variables at the local and landscape levels
- Investigate vertical distribution patterns of ant faunas from the canopy to beneath the surface soil
- Analyze ant diversity at Tiputini in relation to other Amazonian collections to compare species richness, abundance, and turnover between sites
- Examine the diversity of the ant genus Pheidole as a correlate and predictor of ant diversity as a whole
- Study the efficacy of using ants as reliable indicators of biodiversity, disturbance, and the health of primary and secondary forests
- Analyze the different collection methods in order to ascertain the optimal methods necessary for a thorough diversity survey
Most importantly, I will collect and catalog the ant species of Tiputini Biodiversity Station and create a broadly disseminated database of Ecuadorian lowland rainforest ants that includes high-resolution digital images. This database can serve as a valuable resource for future researchers to be used in conservation studies, as an identification resource, as a data set to be used in conjunction with complementary studies, and as an aid in the study of tropical ecosystem functioning.
Ants are important participants in the functioning of our world and deserve our attention and interest. My hope is that my study will be significant in that endeavor. -- Kari