Duke Studies Show That Environmental Effects Of Dams Extend To Insect Life

abuddin on her island-hopping expeditions to study a different question. Her interest was the abundance of ant species that surgically remove leaves from young trees and carry them away to their colonies to cultivate a fungus they feed on.

Rao found these leaf cutter ants seem to thrive on the very small islands that some butterflies avoid. In fact, her systematic census showed an average of 5.6 leaf cutter ant colonies per hectare on the smallest islands, compared to 2.3 on medium sized islands and only 0.72 on the largest.

The reason seems to be linked to the presence or absence of a major leaf cutter ant predator: armadillos. "They're totally absent from the small islands," she said. "Each armadillo requires three or four hectares in order to survive, and the average size of the smaller islands is much less."

She bolstered this observation with experiments using cages to protect ant colonies from armadillo predation, and found this significantly increased their survival rates. "What my research showed me is that the absence of armadillos has contributed largely to the hyper-abundance of ants on the small islands," Rao said.

Rao went on to investigate the environmental consequences of this "hyper-abundance." After determining which of 43 common species growing there were "preferred" food sources for the ants, she determined the "relative abundance" of preferred species was being reduced in the vicinity of the ant colonies she studied there.

"I found that preferred species were underrepresented in the understory of the smaller islands, indicating that hyper-abundance could eventually affect the tree species composition on small islands," she said.


Contact: Monte Basgall
Duke University Medical Center

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