Ants in Madagascar! | Ants & Canopy Bootcamp 2019

Jacob: yeah that was first time I’d used a hand
saw in the tree. They hauled it up to me on the rope and I used that to
cut out a big Camponotus colony. Kind of close to the ground but it’s still
pretty cool. Brian: people go into the forest and they think
“wow, what a beautiful forest” because they see the trees but actually what lives in
the trees just like this amazingly complicated question. It’s a
three-dimensional space there’s insects up there, there’s birds,
there’s lemurs, and we want to know what ants live up there. Why ants? Well, it’s
because they’re one the most dominant organisms in a forest, especially a
rainforest like here in Madagascar, but there are a few people that actually
know how to get up there, so we decided for the first time ever to organize the
training of Malagasy scientists and international scientists to go into the
canopy and explore and discover what ants live up there. Miles: in the summer of 2019
an international team of ant researchers organized an expedition into
Madagascar’s Western dry forests. Their goal: to survey ant diversity high in the
forest canopy while teaching the next generation of scientists. Camille: Madagascar is
home to a tremendous amount of biodiversity with ecosystems ranging
from the montane tropical rainforest to dry spiny thickets
however Madagascar’s unique biodiversity is really threatened by
anthropogenic disturbances such as deforestation and biological invasions.
Miles: after arriving in Madagascar the students begin lessons in ant morphology
they also discuss special field collection techniques. The first week
concludes with intensive training with tree climbing experts. Camile: so especially in
islands with such high levels of endemism it’s really important to
protect the biodiversity and create nuanced and informed management schemes
and in order to do that we really need to understand the diversity and the
various ecosystems of Madagascar especially looking into canopy
ecosystems which are typically really understudied but harbor a lot of
biodiversity. It’s really cool for our work to be able to understand the
diversity and abundance of various ant species in the dry forests of Ankarafantsika. Miles: Once their preparations are complete
the team leaves the capital city and heads into the island’s dry western
landscape. Bonnie: The reason we’re trying to assess canopy and diversity is that we
currently only have three sites in Madagascar sampled for ants in the canopy
but we have over a thousand samples for ants on the ground, so the ground nesting
ant fauna is it’s pretty well sampled and described by my colleague Brian
Fisher’s work but the canopy has been neglected so far so our studies
in Ankarafantsika National Park is one of the few that is looking for canopy
ants specifically. Brian: Madagascar is like a continent upon itself there is the dry
forest, the wet forest, the desert – and more so even within a habitat like the dry
forest, almost every forest patch is different we don’t really know what
we’re gonna find maybe we’ll find even something spectacular new but the first
step is just getting to that habitat. We’ll be testing different methods. By
the end of this we’ll probably have a good protocol for how to sample canopy
ants in Madagascar in the dry forest Jen: my name is Jen Schlauch and I’m an ant researcher and
I’m currently quite a few meters up from the forest floor looking for ants.
So I’ve already climbed the tree and I’m attached to this rope here – this is
how I’ll get down – and I’m up here and I’m breaking sticks. I’m looking for ant nests inside.
It’s pretty easy to overestimate how high you are up in the tree so we have
this convenient rope that’s got markings about every meter and I’m gonna lower it
so you can see how high we are. We’re going to start collecting in this tree
at about 17 meters. Bonnie: so at each tree we had one person climb the tree and search
for ant nests in the trees and collect every single ant they find in the tree
so either collect foragers, workers that are just looking for food in the tree or
ant nests so looking for ant nests and dead branches or dead twigs or on the bark.
Jen: a lot of the ants nest inside the dead twigs of the tree. The reason they
wouldn’t nest inside the living twigs is they often still have a lot of sap and liquid
inside them so they can’t nest inside. This is called an aspirator and it works like a
little handheld vacuum. You use your mouth to suck up the ants. Normally this is a
really good collecting method for ants but the ants that live on trees are used to
climbing up vertical surfaces so they have really good grip so these little
featherweight forceps work better than collecting the ants in the aspirator. They’re a little different from normal
forceps because they’re really delicate so it keeps you from squishing the ant when you pick them up Anne: So I’m one of the climbing instructors and I’m up here with Jen
who’s doing her sampling and she is using a lanyard technique to move
herself around the tree and to position herself to be able to break twigs and
look for ants or look for bark. See this green rope that’s attached to me is
going up to my higher anchor point and this is the rope that I move up and down
on but sometimes that rope doesn’t orient you the way that you want to go
to reach a branch or to take a sample so we have a lanyard that we use and the
lanyard can help us twist different ways or move us across to different branches
where we may want to be. And then I was in a really secure position here I can lean
back and I’m right next to the trunk and I could easily sample
things. Brian: Well, the technique is how to go up into the canopy using ropes in a safe
way and then not just get up there but actually to go from branch to branch – you
know like a like a lemur does Jen: So here I have a really tiny yellow ant,
they had a little foraging trail so they would collect a few of them and they’re
so small we’ll need the dissection scope back at the camp to identify them.
Once I collect the ants I put them in this vial filled with ethanol that
immediately kills them. I record where on the tree I found it, whether it was at a
branch or directly off the trunk and how high up I am. Besides ants you can find a lot of other
things up here like spiders just under the bark and little cockroaches and
sweat bees these are in family Halictidae and they like to suck the sweat off your body.
This tree had a couple of different genera of ants. There was the little
yellow one and Tetraponera and maybe two more genera that I couldn’t identify up
here and this is pretty different from some of the other ant communities we’ve
been seeing on other tree species and one thing this project is aiming to do
is compare the different ant communities between the different trees. Miles: While Jen
and the other climbers tackle the canopy students on the ground search for ants
in the undergrowth. Bonnie: We had one person at the same time sampling for ant nests and
ant foragers in the understory. We defined the understory as around a tree
in a radius of about two meters Miles: Additionally they use beat sheets to
collect insects in a wide radius around the tree by striking plants insects fall
onto the sheets and into the collection cups. Bonnie: And then we also baited for ants
and this was done as as a team usually so the students were placing little
sardine baits tied onto a cord that was then hoisted in the canopy and left for
two to three hours and then the baits were recollected and the ants collected
from the baits. Miles: Between the canopy sampling, ground collections, and tree
baiting, the teams collect hundreds of ants each day. They work into the night processing the new specimens. After 10
days the vials are full and the team travels back to the capital city to
begin the next phase of the project. So when the students come back from the
field with all these ant samples that we collected in the field they have a lot
of work to do. So first of all we need to make sure that every sample is accounted
for in our database. The students were taking notes – so-called collection notes –
while they were collecting the ants so they have to type up their collection
notes first and then we merge these into a joint database. Miles: each sample is assigned
a code linking it to a specific tree, collection time, microhabitat, and other
information called metadata. Students also learn about geographic information
systems which they use to map the ant diversity in the park. Miles: once I’m satisfied
with the accuracy of the database and we start on actually mounting and preparing
one ant per collection – that means glued to a tiny little paper point unless it’s
a colony collection then we would also mount the males and the queens and then
they need to identify every ant to genus and hopefully to species if we
have time. So they have a bunch of work to do over the next few days Michelle: It’s really frustrating to pin really tiny
ants especially when they’re like fractions of a millimeter long because
actually the point that you mount the ant on the piece of paper is bigger than
the ant itself sometimes. There’s a genus called Plagiolepis which I think
everyone struggled with. We decapitated some. It was a struggle but we got
through it! Michelle: This week went well. We pinned and
mounted over 600 ants and that encompasses like 16 genera at least.
Camille: Even though studying and understanding ants in Madagascar is incredibly
important for promoting conservation throughout the island, another really
cool feature that this bootcamp has is training the next generation of
conservationists. So it’s really amazing to foster these collaborations with U.S.
and Malagasy students alike and really be inspired by and build upon these
connections to position us well to make conservation impacts no matter what
field we enter in the future. [music]

13 thoughts on “Ants in Madagascar! | Ants & Canopy Bootcamp 2019

  1. Imagine walking through a hallway in your treetop mansion when suddenly your world turns sideways and the walls break apart, revealing a Miles grinning down at you. #peepthatantnetworkmerch Thanks Miles!

  2. This has to be the most informative video I've watched showing what its like out in the field collecting, and researching ants. Deserves more attention!

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