UT Researcher Explores Ants’ Contributions to the World

KNOXVILLE — If your home have ever been the target of an annoying ant raid, University of Tennessee professor Nathan Sanders, has some advice: Stop invading their territory.

Sanders, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, will discuss this idea and the ecological significance of ants Friday at the UT Science Forum with his lecture, “When Ants Rule the World — Oh Wait, They Already Do.”

Sanders said the most fascinating thing about ants is the vast number of species that exist in virtually every type of terrain across the globe. The availability of these species for sampling allows researchers the opportunity to explore and understand how and why different species of animals inhabit specific areas, he said.

“What we are able to do with ants because they occur in every terrestrial ecosystem, is collect them and identify patterns of species diversity,” he said. “Then we can try and get at the potential mechanisms that cause these patterns of diversity.”

Although they provide a convenient sample for studying organisms across all species, ants themselves are incredible creatures, Sanders said. Among their many duties is the important role of dispersing seeds which help plant species grow and flourish.

“If you look at forests around here, probably 70 percent of those species require ants to disperse their seed,” he said. “If there were no ants, terrestrial ecosystems would not be functioning any way near the way they do today.”

Sanders also noted how, in many ways, ants have been able to use and maintain adaptive behaviors that humans have only recently grasped by comparison. While humans have been using agriculture for 10,000 years and antibiotics only in the last century, ants have been using these techniques for nearly 40 million years, he said.

“We think of those as pretty big advances for human societies, but ants have been doing it for not only millennia but millions of years,” he said. “Aside from that, I would argue that total global mass of ants would greatly exceed the total global mass of humans. By almost any measure, ants probably rule the world.”

Sanders said he hopes attendees at the lecture come to realize just how important these organisms are to the ecological cycle as well as learn a little respect for the millions of tiny soldiers that keep the world in order.

“Ants are more than tiny specks that ruin your picnic or invade your house and eat your cake,” he said. “They are key components of how ecosystems function. It’s key to understand why ants are where they are if we want to understand why ecosystems function, period.”

The UT Science Forum is a weekly, non-technical lecture and discussion designed to help others better understand research across many disciplines. It is held every Friday at noon in Thompson-Boling Arena in dining rooms C and D. Attendees may bring their own lunch or purchase it at the arena. Each presentation should last around 40 minutes followed by a question and answer session.

The final science forum of the semester will be held Friday, April 28 when Mahlon Johnson, professor of pathology will present his lecture, “Brain Tumors: The Switches Are Flipped, But Are the Lights On?”

Contacts:

Jay Mayfield, media relations (865-974-9409, jay.mayfield@tennessee.edu)

Nathan Sanders, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, (865-974-5231, nsanders@utk.edu)

Mark Littmann, forum program chairman, (865-974-8156, littmann@utk.edu)