There are more than 13,000 ant species. The creatures can travel hundreds of metres for food. (Supplied)
Researchers in South Australia are investigating how climate change could impact ants and what consequences any altered behaviour could have on the greater environment.
University of New England zoology PhD student Sean Moore and a team of volunteers are in the middle of a two-year study on how higher temperatures can affect the insects.
Although the study will not conclude until 2020, Mr Moore said early results suggested some ants could change their behaviour to survive warmer conditions.
“Ants punch above their weight when it comes to the impacts they can have on other species in their ecosystems,” he said.
“If they are getting closer to their critical thermal maximum because of an extra couple of degrees, they will change their foraging strategy to forage at times without it being detrimental to their individual health and the health of the colony.
Food sources are placed in the structures to attract the ants to the warmer space. (Supplied: Berri Barmera Land Care)
“That might mean that things like seed dispersal events and the ants’ foraging times are out of whack, and they might miss out on it completely, or it might not impact them at all.
“If they do in fact change their behaviour … or if they can’t forage at the best times where there is the most food available, and if there are flow-on effects … to the rest of the ecosystems, it could result in a lot of change in habitats.”
Turning up the heat
The ants are being monitored quarterly at sites in South Australia, the Northern Territory and New South Wales, with volunteers on hand to help the academics leading the project.
The teams are placing vials full of food inside and outside special chambers that trap heat to simulate climate change-like conditions.
Berri Barmera Landcare project officer Helga Kieskamp, who is assisting the research at the group’s Wilabalangaloo site, said so far the results had been varied.
Berri Barmera Landcare project officer Helga Kieskamp inside the small chamber that is used to create warmer temperatures. (ABC Riverland: Laura Collins)
“Some vials, at times, can have a lot of ants in them,” she said.
“It varies a bit with the weather as well — there will be a bit more activity in warmer weather.”
Ms Kieskamp said ants played a significant role in the balance of their environment.
“Ants aerate the soil, which helps plants grow, so even if it was just the little creatures that are affected [by climate change], they still have quite a big effect [on the rest of the ecosystem],” she said.
“Climate change is going to be a very big thing and will have a big effect on a lot of things — not just environmental, but also economic.”
Creating community scientists
Volunteers John Thompson (L) and Kim Lohmann are helping with ant monitoring. (Supplied: Berri Barmera Land Care)
Mr Moore said he had sought volunteers to help with the program because he wanted to foster connections with the general public to increase their knowledge and interest in science.
“The stereotypical scientist is someone that doesn’t get out very often and someone that stays in their own little lab and in their own little world,” he said.
“Traditionally there hasn’t been a whole lot of communication with the wider community.
“We want to try and break that barrier in a lot of different labs, not just our own, to try and make sure that people understand what science is going on in the world around them.”