January 18th, 2016
By Bremer,Jonathan Sloan
Our lab’s Plant for Wildlife project uses colored pan traps to survey the insect diversity present in suburban environments in and around Gainesville, FL. Though our study focuses on likely pollinators, other groups of insects that are not usually thought of as effective pollinators are trapped as well. One of the most common insect families found in our samples is Formicidae: the ants. Approximately 1000 species of ants are known to live in North America north of Mexico and can be found in almost any type of habitat from the most arid deserts to rainforest to tundra. Ants are very important to many of these ecosystems and often make up a significant portion of the animal biomass. All known non-parasitic ant species are eusocial, meaning that female ants will produce two different types of offspring: reproductive males and females (often called “alates” because they have wings in order to disperse effectively) and sterile female workers that gather food, build nests and care for young.
In some ants, workers are differentiated into different morphological types called “castes”. These polymorphic workers are most commonly divided in minor workers and major workers or “soldiers”. Minor workers tend to do most of the foraging and care for the nest while major workers usually have enlarged heads with powerful mandibles that are used to defend the nest.
Members of the genus Pogonomyrmex gather seeds to feed their colonies and are widespread and very diverse in the southwestern United States, but only one species, P. badius, is found in Florida. P. badius is also the only member of the genus known to have polymorphic workers. The soldier caste is pictured below.
Other ant species are specialist predators. The workers of the genus Odontomachus (commonly known as trap-jaw ants) hunt springtails and other small invertebrates. Their long mandibles are held outward at 180 degrees until their prey contacts one of a number of specialized sensory hairs above the mouth. The jaws then snap closed with incredible speed (one of the fastest movements in the animal kingdom), stunning or impaling the prey on inward pointing teeth.
Workers in the genus Strumigenys are not closely related to Odontomachus but have similar adaptations for hunting small, fast-moving prey. Because of their small size and habit of nesting and foraging underground, they are less frequently observed.
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