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ANTology

Jan 25, 2017

Zachary Stahlschmidt, assistant professor of biology, and his undergraduate research partner, Dustin Johnson '17, are putting the Pacific mark on ants in the Central Valley.

California's Central Valley, home to nearly seven million people, produces roughly 25 percent of the nation's food on about 1 percent of its farmland. However, the impact of human activity on the valley's ecology is very much under-studied.

Backyard ANTology is a citizen science outreach program created by Stahlschmidt to better understand the distributional patterns of ants in the Central Valley. The research project will provide new insights into ant ecology in the region while also giving students a chance to conduct rigorous scientific research alongside a respected biologist.

Why ants? They are everywhere (except Antarctica), play important roles in ecosystems and form complex societies. They are successful animals with intriguing behaviors. The problem is that there isn't much information about them in our region.

Here's where Backyard ANTology comes in.

Anyone can request an ant collection kit that contains everything a citizen scientist needs to collect ants wherever he or she chooses. After capping vials of captured ants and freezing the containers overnight, the volunteer researcher sends the kit back to Pacific where Stahlschmidt and his students identify the ants and post the data on their webpage.

The 6-month-old program has attracted 30 participants and collected a surprising range of ants.

"With the help of citizen scientists-3 to 71 years old-we have identified 14 species of ants that were previously not described in the Central Valley around Stockton," Stahlschmidt said.

For Johnson, Stahlschmidt's student and research associate, Backyard ANTology has offered rare learning opportunities. For example, in January, Johnson accompanied Stahldschmidt to New Orleans for the annual meeting of the Society for Integrative & Comparative Biology, the largest meeting of organismal biologists in North America.

Johnson presented their research findings and an overview of the project.

"This project has given me the opportunity to start something from scratch. I've learned how difficult it is to get all the parts lined up and working cohesively, and also how rewarding it is to see the finished project in action," Johnson said.

The future is bright for Backyard ANTology, as the project was recently awarded a Pacific Fund grant to continue the work during the summer.

Johnson plans to promote the program through social media by creating a Facebook page. The research pair also hopes to collaborate with Patty Gray, Pacific's Garden Program Director, in characterizing the ant community in and near the Robb Garden on campus. Another planned collaboration is with Teresa Vail, Director of Field Experiences at the Gladys L. Benerd School of Education, to develop a Backyard ANTology learning module for local K-8 schools.

One of College of the Pacific's hallmarks is giving students experiential learning opportunities with the added value of close student-faculty working relationships. Backyard ANTology is a prime example.

For more information on the Backyard ANTology research, visit www.backyardantology.weebly.com.