Across the world, ants are among the first animals children learn to recognize. They are diverse, abundant, and ecologically important from the tops of canopy trees to the soil underfoot and from tropical rainforests to deserts and even backyards and playgrounds.
It may surprise you, then, to hear that we know very little about even the identity of those ant species that live closest to us – those sharing our cities and eating our discarded food. As a scientist, I’m fascinated about the lives of city ants and how they affect diversity and ecosystem services where people live and work. However, answering the basic question ‘What ant species live in America’s backyards and sidewalks?’ is an extraordinarily difficult task, at least for a scientist working alone.
One way to tackle this task — the approach we happily undertook — is to forge partnerships with the public (and taxonomists and science writers) from across the country (and now, the world) in the School of Ants Citizen Science Project.
Armed with cookies, resealable plastic bags and curiosity, people from every state in the USA collected ants from their backyards, schoolyards, and neighborhoods and sent them to us. Undergraduate students then diligently sorted ants, and regional experts identified the ants to species. We then uploaded these data to a database and created an interactive map where participants could see what species they (and other people) collected. Even Dr. Eleanor Spicer Rice got in on the School of Ants fun – in her Book of Common Ants, she shares natural history stories about the ant species most common in your collections. While this project is still ongoing, we are excited to announce the publication of the first scientific paper based on School of Ants collections, available free to anyone to download from Ecosphere today:
Andrea Lucky, Amy M. Savage, Lauren M. Nichols, Cristina Castracani, Leonora Shell, Donato A. Grasso, Alessandra Mori, and Robert R. Dunn 2014. Ecologists, educators, and writers collaborate with the public to assess backyard diversity in The School of Ants Project. Ecosphere 5:art78–art78. http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/ES13-00364.1
So . . . what did we find???
With collections from across the USA, we are starting to get a better picture of ant diversity across the country, although we are far from finished addressing this question (especially for the Midwestern states). Here are a few exciting findings we describe in the paper:
1. School of Ants collections from untrained participants (who only used the instructions found on our website schoolofants.org) were just as effective as collections from participants trained in Dr. Rob Dunn’s ant laboratory at NCSU. This result did not surprise us in the least, and demonstrates the high quality of the data collected by our citizen scientist partners.