Nature, Science

Ants Help Researchers to Understand the Effects of Climate Change

Ants are helping researchers to understand the effects of global climate change.
Photo: Shutterstock

Climate change research has issued a lot of warnings about the effects rising temperatures will have on different species of plants and animals around the world, but that research usually focuses on one species at a time. No species exists in a vacuum, though. All species of plants and animals interact with other species all the time, and ecosystems are complex communities that will be affected by global climate change in ways that we can’t determine by studying species in vacuums.

This is why Dr. Shannon Pelini has spent the last five years running an experiment to test the effects of warming temperatures on multi-species ant communities in two different forest settings, in Harvard Forest in Massachusetts, and Duke Forest in North Carolina. Her goal was to see not only how rising temperatures affect species which interact and compete with one another, but to also see how those changes are impacted by different regions.

Pelini and her colleagues found some unexpected results.

What was expected, and what happened, was that more heat-loving ants occupied warmer chambers. However, what they didn’t expect was to see that ants were remaining in one single nest for much longer. Usually, ant colonies move from nest to nest, competing with one another for prime nesting spots. But since the heat-loving ants stayed in a nest for a long time, the researchers believe there will be less resilience in that community. That means a disturbance event could lead to a community falling apart.

Pelini believes these results occurred for two reasons: First, warming will create an environment that selects for organisms with broader or higher heat tolerances. Second, the species that do well under warming conditions will have more chances to interact with other species that have different levels of heat tolerance.

The latter is something that current climate change models cannot capture because they do not focus on the community as a whole, Pelini says.

Research like this is not only fascinating and original, but essential to understanding how global climate change is affecting the world. We can make statements about much the global temperature will rise or how much flooding will increase, for example, but there is a lot that we don’t know about how natural phenomena brought about by climate change will impact different regions and ecosystems. The more we know about how those changes will affect a specific ecosystem or region, the more we can do to try and mitigate the damage caused.

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