Assistant Professor of Biology Chris Smith is pictured in an ant hole on a recent research expidition. Smith has been fascinated by ants since he was an undergraduate student at the University of Texas.

Professor’s study on ‘insect version of sharks’ offers new understanding on the division of labor in ants

July 28, 2014

When Assistant Professor of Biology Chris Smith studies the behavior of ants, some species track his every move, too.

In a recent research expedition, Smith scoured the Argentinian rainforest for Dinoponera australis, one of the largest species of ant in the world.

“This ant will look you in the eye when you work with it,” Smith says. “They are just mammoth in size compared to other ants and so they are also very easy to observe. Their behavior is very clear.”

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What has not been clear to scientists is why the inch-long, “insect-version of sharks” is so prevalent in the rainforest.  Typically, predators tend to be relatively rare in numbers compared to the insects they feed on, but not this species.

Smith co-authored the research paper, “Foraging Ecology of the Tropical Giant Hunting Ant” (Biotropica, 2014),” that explains this phenomenon.

“The research summarizes that this is a pattern that needs to be explored,” Smith says. “We found that they are territorial and space themselves evenly over the landscape. Each individual colony and individual ant has a chunk of the territory that they exploit for food.”

Smith’s scholarly interests have involved ants since he was an undergraduate student at the University of Texas in Austin.

“They are the dominant members of almost every ecosystem on earth,” he says. “There are some 14,000 species of ants. There are more ants than there are birds. There are more ants than there are mammals.

Smith’s research is focused on the division of labor in ant colonies, or “what makes a queen a queen and what makes a worker a worker.”

In 2009, he was a leading contributor on groundbreaking research funded by the National Science Foundation. The Harvester Ant Genome Project (National Academy of Sciences, 2010) produced one of the first fully sequenced ant genomes, or the sequenced genetic material of an organism. Smith also co-authored papers that were simultaneously published on two other ant genomes: the invasive Argentine ant and the leaf-cutter ant.

The project revealed new clues about the evolution and social lives of the pesky species that invade homes looking for food. These papers have found that ants are very different, genomically, from other social insects like the honeybee. 

Smith is also active in the area of faculty-student collaborative research. In 2013, Smith and a group of students traveled to Florida using funding from a Ford/Knight grant to do a large-scale field manipulation of ant colonies in order to study factors that organize workers in the colony. 

“We worked from dawn until dusk every day for three weeks, mostly digging very large holes when either taking colonies out of the ground or ‘replanting’ them, as well as individually marking over one thousand ants with paint,” Smith says.

“Getting involved early in research is a great predictor of what students can do later on in their careers,” he says. “If you can do more within a field early on, you begin to develop your portfolio earlier.”

Just like Smith did.

— EC —

Earlham College, a national liberal arts college located in Richmond, Indiana, is a "College That Changes Lives." We expect our students to be fully present: to think rigorously, value directness and genuineness, and actively seek insights from differing perspectives. The values we practice at Earlham are rooted in centuries of Quaker tradition, but they also constitute the ideal toolkit for contemporary success. Earlham is one of only 40 national liberal arts colleges ranked among U.S. News and World Reports' "Great Schools at a Great Price."

Brian Zimmerman is director of media relations at Earlham College. He can be reached at (765) 983-1256 and zimmebr@earlham.edu.

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