Ancient ants leaving a modern trail

June 08, 2016

It is thought that ants evolved about 150 million years ago and have risen to dominance in the past 60 million years. They are now everywhere and while they are not always welcome on your kitchen counter, they are critical to ecosystems around the world for many roles, including seed dispersal and decomposition. There are a variety of factors that can impact diversity in geographically-clustered ant communities, but it can be difficult to decipher the most important biogeographic influences on these ant populations. Patricia Wepfer, Dr. Benoit Guénard (currently at the University of Hong Kong), and Prof. Evan Economo from the Biodiversity and Biocomplexity Unit at Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) unravelled the web of biogeographic components to find the influences that most significantly affect ant communities. They recently published their results in the Journal of Biogeography.

"I was interested in how different these communities could be across Asia," Patricia Wepfer, first author and OIST Ph.D. student said. "We wanted to know how a community [of ants] is composed in different places and why it is composed in that way."

The team assembled a large dataset of ant species occurrence records for 159 areas in Asia ranging from the Ryukyu Islands to Taiwan and coastal regions of South Korea. From this data, they determined which ants existed where and what factors may be affecting the communities.

They then analysed whether the climate - temperature, rainfall - and/or space - geographical distance, water barriers - made more of a difference to the composition of ant communities. The researchers also looked more closely to see whether historical land connections significantly affect ant communities. During the Last Glacial Maximum in the Pleistocene Epoch, approximately 26,000 years ago, many areas and islands in Asia were connected. As the land moved, the ocean began to cover these areas and create separate land masses. Surprisingly, ant population configurations of today are very much influenced by these past land connections that existed in the Pleistocene.

"Interestingly, the past land connections during the Last Glacial Maximum are more important in explaining the existing ant community patterns, than the way land is configured now," Wepfer said. "This may be due to the fact that historical land connections existed for a much longer time than the connections that we have today and ants take a long time to distribute."

While historical land connections are the most surprising factor in determining the make-up of a geographically-clustered ant community, ecologists also have to consider current and recognized influences, such as the temperature. From the data, the team determined that the temperature played the largest role in the differentiation between ant communities. With the advent of climate change, this may have many implications on ant ecosystems, as well as the ecosystems they work to sustain.

"Temperature is the dominant factor and plays a major role in shaping ant communities," Wepfer said. "Climate change will likely change these ant communities."

It is well-known in ecology that temperature is of the utmost importance in shaping species distributions, but it is important to keep in mind the spatial influence upon ant communities.

"In order to understand why species are where they are, we need to think about the current climate and land connections between areas," Economo said. "But also what the connections between areas were during the Last Glacial Maximum, which is when the sea levels were very low."

The historical land connections can reveal how much a structural change, whether that is the shifting of continents or even on a much smaller scale, like building a dam or paving a road, can influence ecosystems.

"It is important to be aware of things that happen in the past for species composition today," Wepfer said. "Whatever major structural changes that are made to the environment can result in different connectivity between habitats and spaces."
-end-


Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) Graduate University

Related Climate Change Articles from Brightsurf:

Are climate scientists being too cautious when linking extreme weather to climate change?
Climate science has focused on avoiding false alarms when linking extreme events to climate change.

Mysterious climate change
New research findings underline the crucial role that sea ice throughout the Southern Ocean played for atmospheric CO2 in times of rapid climate change in the past.

Mapping the path of climate change
Predicting a major transition, such as climate change, is extremely difficult, but the probabilistic framework developed by the authors is the first step in identifying the path between a shift in two environmental states.

Small change for climate change: Time to increase research funding to save the world
A new study shows that there is a huge disproportion in the level of funding for social science research into the greatest challenge in combating global warming -- how to get individuals and societies to overcome ingrained human habits to make the changes necessary to mitigate climate change.

Sub-national 'climate clubs' could offer key to combating climate change
'Climate clubs' offering membership for sub-national states, in addition to just countries, could speed up progress towards a globally harmonized climate change policy, which in turn offers a way to achieve stronger climate policies in all countries.

Review of Chinese atmospheric science research over the past 70 years: Climate and climate change
Over the past 70 years since the foundation of the People's Republic of China, Chinese scientists have made great contributions to various fields in the research of atmospheric sciences, which attracted worldwide attention.

A CERN for climate change
In a Perspective article appearing in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Tim Palmer (Oxford University), and Bjorn Stevens (Max Planck Society), critically reflect on the present state of Earth system modelling.

Fairy-wrens change breeding habits to cope with climate change
Warmer temperatures linked to climate change are having a big impact on the breeding habits of one of Australia's most recognisable bird species, according to researchers at The Australian National University (ANU).

Believing in climate change doesn't mean you are preparing for climate change, study finds
Notre Dame researchers found that although coastal homeowners may perceive a worsening of climate change-related hazards, these attitudes are largely unrelated to a homeowner's expectations of actual home damage.

Older forests resist change -- climate change, that is
Older forests in eastern North America are less vulnerable to climate change than younger forests, particularly for carbon storage, timber production, and biodiversity, new research finds.

Read More: Climate Change News and Climate Change Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.