[ASC-media] Why are Ecologists so obsessed with ants?

Jenni Metcalfe jenni at econnect.com.au
Wed Nov 30 15:28:07 EST 2005

30 November 2005


If we weighed all the land animals in the world, ants would make up about 30 percent of that weight - so it's not surprising that ecologists are fascinated with them, according to one of their biggest fans, CSIRO researcher Dr Alan Andersen, also from the Bushfire CRC.


"Ants are so successful because of their social lifestyle - the colony. It's just good taste to work with ants," he said. "I was originally working with seeds of plants and found that the ants were eating my seeds, and thought here's something interesting to work on."


Alan then became interested in where the ants occurred and the types of species that occur in certain areas, right across the world. He has been working with ants for about 25 years and can't get enough of them. 


Kate Parr, also from the Bushfire CRC believes ecologists are hooked on ants for many of the reasons that other people are.


"Ants are quite beautiful and diverse," she said. "We are all fascinated by worker ants, we've been bitten by ants, and we have them in the house. Ants surround us all the time."


Kate started working on ants in South Africa where she was looking at the effect of fire regimes in conserving biodiversity. She wanted to use birds as an indicator of animal diversity but they were too mobile so she started looking at ants. She has been fascinated with them ever since.


"For my research, I'm interested in using ants as a tool to answer ecological questions: Why does the body size in different animal species vary with latitudes? Why are there more species at the equator? These are big questions and ants are useful for testing some of these ideas."


Shae Callan from Curtin University shares Kate's enthusiasm for ants.


"Ants are great to work on. In urban bushland remnants, things such as ants, worms and spiders are the driving forces behind the ecosystems: more so than many of the furry animals that people associate with conservation," he said. 


"Ants are easy to sample and there has been a lot of research done on them that you can draw from. You can work on them easily in the laboratory".  


In south-west Western Australia where Shae is working, ants are crucial to the bushland ecosystems. They help with decomposition and are major seed collectors and distributors.  


"It is easy to dismiss or squash ants before taking a look at what they are - they do more for ecosystems than people think and when you get them under the microscope they are pretty fascinating."


Valerie Debuse from the Department of Primary Industries in Queensland finds ants fascinating because they are a good indicator of the health of the environment.


"We've been using ants to investigate the impact of mining, logging and fire for quite a while now. Ants are becoming more important for understanding climate change and vegetation loss."


Valerie wasn't always interested in ants but she was struck by how common they were when she arrived in Australia in 2001 from the UK.


"There were so many different kinds of ants.  They caught my attention immediately".


Alan Andersen, Kate Parr, Shae Callan and Valerie Debuse are just four of the ten ant researchers speaking at the Ecological Society of Australia Conference, held at the University of Queensland from 29 November to 2 December 2005.




Alan Andersen from the Bushfire CRC - Alan.Andersen at csiro.au; 08 8944 8431 or 0414 466 487


Kate Parr from the Bushfire CRC -- kate.parr at csiro.au; 08 8944 8412 or 0424 108897


Shae Callan from Curtin University - impact in threatened ecosystems - shaecallan at iinet.net.au;  08 92667458 or 0418917179


Valerie Debuse from the Department of Primary Industries - valerie.debuse at dpi.qld.gov.au; 0754 820 880 or 0428 283 469


For media assistance: 

Please contact: Michelle Riedlinger on 0400 577 843, michelle at econnect.com.au or Jenni Metcalfe on 0408 551 866, jenni at econnect.com.au 

Jenni Metcalfe
Econnect Communication
PO Box 734
South Brisbane Q 4101

Ph. 07 3846 7111; 0408 551 866
jenni at econnect.com.au

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