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What are canopy ants up to?

July 28, 2014

What are canopy ants up to?

Max Adams delighted in climbing trees and playing with bugs when he was a toddler in Louisiana. Two decades later not a lot has changed

Max Adams delighted in climbing trees and playing with bugs when he was a toddler in Louisiana. Two decades later not a lot has changed. Now he spends his days climbing 30 meters into the forest canopy on Panama’s Barro Colorado Nature Monument for a Ph.D.-level peek into the world of tropical canopy ants.

Unlike their terrestrial counterparts, canopy ants are relatively understudied. “Ants play such an important role on the ground but there are still many questions about what they do in the canopy,” said Adams while standing in the crown of a Dipteryx panamensis, the forest floor hidden by underbrush and the Panama Canal visible in the distance.

Adams is part of a research team led by Stephen Yanoviak of the University of Louisville. They look at the role lianas, or woody vines, play in maintaining canopy ant species richness. Some 20 species can nest in a single tree. Vines provide connectivity between trees. They may also increase available nest space and food resources for ants.

Adams’ trees are on experimental plots on BCNM’s Gigante Peninsula used by many STRI scientists. STRI staff scientist Joe Wright and research associate Stefan Schnitzer have shown lianas are increasing in abundance in the New World tropics. More lianas can decrease carbon uptake by forests but may be a boon to canopy ants.

“Preliminary findings indicate trees with more lianas have higher ant species richness,” said Adams. “If lianas are increasing we may see increased canopy ant species diversity and community complexity.”

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