Tuesday, July 8, 2014

School of Ants

Scientists from North Carolina State University and the University of Florida have combined cookies, citizen science and robust research methods to track the diversity of ant species across the United States, and are now collaborating with international partners to get a global perspective on how ants are moving and surviving in the modern world.

The so called School of Ants (SoA) project was developed at North Carolina State University to help researchers get a handle on the diversity of ant species across the United States, with a particular focus on Chicago, Raleigh and New York City. In short, to discover which ant species are living where. However, it also serves as a good model for how citizen science can be used to collect more data, more quickly, from more places than a research team could do otherwise. The researchers were working with teachers to incorporate the project into K-12 instruction modules that incorporate key elements of common core education standards. They also collaborated with a science writer to produce a free series of iBooks featuring natural history stories about the most common ants that were collected.

The project approach is very similar to our School Malaise Trap Program. The colleagues developed a simple protocol involving Pecan cookies and sealable plastic bags, detailing precisely how the students should collect and label ant samples before shipping them to the researchers. This process was designed to engage the public in the aspect of the research that was easiest for non-scientists to enjoy and participate in, while also limiting the chances that the public could make mistakes that would skew the findings.

Once the samples arrive at either university, they are sorted, identified by experts and entered into a database. That information is then made publicly available in a user-friendly format on the project's site, allowing study participants to track the survey. More than 1,000 participants, with samples from all 50 states, have taken part in the project since its 2011 launch - and there have already been some surprising findings.

For example, the researchers learned that the venomous invasive species, the Asian needle ant (Pachycondyla chinensis), had spread thousands of miles farther than anyone expected. It was known that the species had established itself in the Southeast, but study participants sent in Asian needle ant samples from as far afield as Wisconsin and Washington state.

Still not convinced? Here some more findings as reported in their paper:
To address concerns about the validity of citizen scientist-derived data, we conducted a ground truthing trial that confirmed that trained and untrained volunteers were equally effective at collecting ants. Data from SoA samples indicate that ant diversity varies across wide geographic scales and that there can be high levels of native ant diversity where people live. SoA volunteers collected 7 exotic and 107 native ant species. Although exotic ants were common, ants native to North America occurred in ~70% of all sites. Many of the ants common in backyards were species that tend to be very poorly studied.

This is another great example on how we as researchers can engage the public in our work. I often heard colleagues complaining that nobody except their peers really understands and appreciates what they are working on. The School of Ants program is a good example for a way out of this dilemma as it represents a citizen science project that both increased the public's scientific literacy and addressed criticisms that public involvement made citizen science data unreliable. The only thing we need to change our mindset: Citizen science is not a burden, it is an enrichment.

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