**This is a guest post from postdoctoral researcher, Dr. DeAnna Beasley. Her research is NSF-funded by our Students Discover grant which partners scientists with educators to co-create citizen science projects and middle school lesson plans. The products of these partnerships can be found at StudentsDiscover.org.**
This past summer I worked with middle school teachers in the Kenan Fellows Program and undergraduate students from Shaw University and North Carolina State University at the beautiful North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Our goal was to develop a citizen science project that would engage middle school students in the classroom while providing data for authentic scientific research.
Our goal was to develop a citizen science project that would engage middle school students in the classroom while providing data for authentic scientific research.
For my research, I’m interested in understanding the effects of environmental change on ant immune function and disease resistance. Cities, characterized by patchy landscapes, higher ambient temperatures and the presence of human-made food and waste, represent one of the more significant changes our terrestrial environment is experiencing. We know for some insects, including ants, these environmental changes have significant effects on abundance. But what is less clear is the effect of these changes on host-pathogen interactions. Do ants in cities have stronger or weaker immune function and are they more or less susceptible to disease? Conversely, are insect pathogens in urban habitats more or less prevalent and diverse?
Do ants in cities have stronger or weaker immune function and are they more or less susceptible to disease?
To answer these questions we went out and collected ants from all parts of the forest and city. We collected different species of ants including the little black ant (Monomorium minimum), the red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta) and my favorite, the carpenter ant (Camponotus castaneus). We also collected the soil where we found the ants to isolate fungal insect pathogens. The teachers and students learned how to extract hemolymph (insect blood!) for immune function tests and isolate fungal insect pathogens from the soil using mealworms.
The results are starting to come in and we’re truly excited about some promising patterns, including some beautiful fungi with some cool characteristics (images courtesy of Michele Musante). For example, some fungi release chemicals into soil to deter competitors or absorb nutrients. You can see this in the pictures of the fungi that turned the growth agar pink! There are also fungi that change the behavior of their host to improve their reproductive fitness (to the detriment of their host). It’s fun to collect and grow these entomopathogens and learn more about these characteristics and how it may impact ant health.
What’s more exciting is that thanks to talents and expertise of the Kenan Fellows and Students Discover, students in middle school classes will soon be able to use the same techniques to explore their own questions while contributing to our understanding of how social insect health and their pathogens change across an urban environment.
If you’d like to see the 2015-2016 Kenan Fellows present on their research with Dr. Beasley, be sure to watch their Daily Planet talk.
Dr. DeAnna Beasley is a Postdoctoral Scholar in Applied Ecology at North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. When she’s not thinking about all the ways climate change and urbanization can influence the biology of ants and humans, she’s working on her Tai Chi and hang gliding. Follow her on Twitter @FlyingScientist.