Research Program

My research focuses on studying the systematics, biogeography and conservation of native Pacific Island ants, and also developing taxonomic resources to help prevent the spread of globally invasive ants.

Systematics, biogeography & conservation
of Pacific Island ants

Archipelagos are among Earth’s greatest natural laboratories because they allow us to distill evolutionary processes often muddied by continental complexity. The islands of the Pacific have proved particularly fertile testing grounds, inspiring such notable achievements as the modern concepts of biological speciation, adaptive radiation, island biogeography, and taxon cycles. I seek to understand the processes and patterns of biological diversity by using Pacific island ant radiations as a model system for testing evolutionary, biogeographical and ecological hypotheses.

I begin my research by revising the taxonomy of an ant radiation endemic to the Fijian archipelago. I use morphological character analysis and range distributions to determine species limits, revise the taxonomy of previously described species, and describe any newly discovered new species. Then, with the help of collaborators including Andrea Lucky (NCSU) and Corrie Moreau (Field Museum), I infer the phylogeny of the study group and its Pacific relatives using molecular data. The phylogeny allows us to test hypotheses concerning the group’s monophly, biogeographical origins, and morphological evolution. By placing the phylogeny results into an ecological context, Evan Economo (University of Michigan) and I are beginning to test predictions of the taxon cycle and propose new hypotheses for how lineages colonize, diversify and ultimately face extinction in island systems.

Taxonomy of invasive ants

Ants are also among the most notorious of all invasive species. Of the world’s 100 most significant invaders, five are ants. Introduced ants pose significant risks to global agricultural economies, ecosystems, public health and quality of life. Once these species become established, it is nearly impossible to eradicate them. Arguably the most effective strategy for mitigating the effects of invasive ants is to intercept incursions before they are able to establish. This requires port officials and quarantine officers to posses a taxonomic capacity capable of identifying a multitude of different ant species.

I am designing user-friendly identification guides increase the capacity of port personnel, conservationists, and general biologists to identify invasive ants. The web-based guides use a new generation of identification tools. The Lucid3 matrix-based keys render the identification process more intuitive and efficient than traditional dichotomous keys. Vector-based line drawings are used to illustrate character states and glossary terms. High-resolution digital specimen photographs are used to highlight species-level characters. Video clips demonstrate useful characters for field identification. Species pages detail  diagnostic characters, comparison charts, image galleries, nomenclature, references and links.

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