This study will reveal how individual foraging ants make decisions based upon external abiotic and biotic factors such as wind and nest mate traffic density on the foraging trail. Individuals have been shown to minimize individual carrying capacity to maximize colony performance (resource input) (Farji-Brener et al. 2011).
I will examine foraging behavior of leaf-cutter ants in Costa Rica in response to wind speed this summer. I will measure if the ants cut smaller-sized leaf fragments to avoid the energetic costs of wind resistance on the fragment surface. This project also measures cutting speed on the leaf surface and whether the ants remember the disturbance on the trail or react to the disturbance at the cutting site, only. Lastly, nest mate density on the trail needs to be taken into account to properly gauge for "truck driver" effects on foraging behavior.
Behavioral response by ants to wind has been looked at very little, and yet most of their communication involves volatile pheromonal cues wafting in the wind, helping direct behavior. Several other factors have been studied that affect individual foraging activity: traffic density on the trail, cutting surface, and nest entrance; distance of the resource to the colony entrance, and obstructions on the trail. This study could add to the list of factors that influence individual foraging plasticity, or it could support the hypothesis that wind has no effect on foraging behavior. Either result will add to the body of literature and further our understanding of how individuals change their behavior to maximize the performance of the colony, as a whole, without anyone telling them what to do. Fascinating!
Partial funding has been awarded by a fellowship from the Organization for Tropical Studies in Costa Rica and from a grant awarded by the University of Colorado, Boulder, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Additional funding is required for a wind meter, bus and taxi fare, one night in a San Jose hostel, airport exit tax, and a sling shot for harvesting leaves from the very top of trees. Excess money raised above the minimum goal will be put towards attendance in a graduate level ant course in Portal, Arizona for ten days in August. This course is given by top experts in the ant behavior community, and it will teach me all of the identification, census, and rearing techniques that I will need to complete my dissertation. I currently have no funding for the ant course.
This project will elucidate behavioral response or lack of response by leaf-cutter ants to an abiotic factor (wind) and biotic factors like nest mate traffic density on the trail. It may also show that ants have memory of a disturbance on a foraging trail away from the actual forging site, changing their behavior according to anticipated future conditions. It may be shown that ants can predict future energy expenditure based upon present conditions, and behave differently to minimize that energy cost, ultimately increasing the performance of the colony as a whole.
After dropping out of my undergraduate degree, I spent the next decade trying my hand at several jobs in the workforce and having two wonderful boys with my wife. With limited options for career prospects, I chose to go back to school and form a career that would support my familiy in a way that would make me happy. I love biology, and I proceeded to master my undergraduate courses with a maturity and passion that I did not have when I was younger. Now, in graduate school at the University of Colorado, Boulder, I am learning more about social animal behavior, especially ants. My passion only grows stronger the more that I learn about these amazing and ubiquitous animals. I know how to finish what I start.
Recently, I spent two months in Costa Rica on an intensive immersion course in tropical biology and the science of experimental design and analysis. That course has prepared me to conduct experimentation on my own in a foreign country, especially when that research involves the ants. This research will vault me into my PhD project. I am excited and enthusiastic to begin. Please consider contributing to this project. Thank you for your time.