“Why? What if….? How does this happen?”
I asked a simple question in June 2014, when I stepped out of our lime-green LandCruiser (lovingly named “Kermit”) and into the Kenyan savanna. For the last decade, biologists and ranchers and natural historians have noticed the creeping invasion by the big-headed ant (Pheidole megacephala), but it can be difficult to take the first steps in understanding an invasive species.
Fortunately, I took a step without looking, right into a pile of cow dung. I hit rewind, and scraped the poo off of my boot. I noticed big-headed ants crawling around in the dung pile, and I wondered:
“How does the big-headed ant invasion change the life of a dung beetle? Can they still dig their burrows, roll up their smelly treasure, and woo their mate while a pesky invader is turning their community upside-down?”
Questions are the real tools for a biologist. Everyone knows how to use these tools. And honestly, everyone can study the fascinating world of nature. Every curious child walks into their backyard, or around their local park, or even down a bustling city street, and can ask a question about the natural world.
Keep a pen and notebook close, because you can be a biologist
It turns out that dung beetles, termites, and other poo-loving insects are pretty tough. Big-headed ants kill a lot of native insects when they invade the savanna around Mpala Research Centre, including the fearsome safari ant (Genus Dorylus) and the stinging acacia-ants (Genus Crematogaster).
But dung-lovers are unfazed. When the invasion rolls in, dung beetles still show up to a fresh dung patty: some beetles lay their eggs in the middle of the mound, while others dig under the pile and make a burrow right underneath their newfound feast. As anyone who has watched True Facts about the Dung Beetle knows, other beetles make their own personal ball and take it home to their burrow, sometimes hundreds of meters away.
When you’re dealing with the natural sciences — biology, ecology, and conservation science — simple questions can yield surprising and complicated answers. Even though the savanna dung-lovers are unaffected by this invasion, that does not mean that other important species and processes are also resilient. As natural scientists, we examine those processes a few at a time, studying the miniature gears and levers that make up a grand ticking biota.
Anyone can do what we do. You just need curiosity, patience, and the willingness to dig around in poo sometimes.
Nowadays, my tool set is slightly expanded. I grab garden shears, a shovel, plastic containers, and of course, a digital camera. Maybe a few cookies (mind you, they’re called “biscuits” in this former British colony), because they’re fantastic bait for ants. You never know what you might need. If you think that you handle that, then maybe give your local biologist recruiter a call, and unravel a mystery in the changing natural world.
To learn more about this research project, keep a close eye on Ecosphere, the open-access online journal published by the Ecological Society of America. The related article will be publicly available soon!
I am a 2nd-year PhD student at the University of Florida. I grew up on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, and have been traveling to Kenya on a yearly basis since 2013. My research focuses on ant-plant interactions and invasive species. As a grad student and future ecologist, I want to use my research to create unique natural learning experiences for students, scientists and the general public, because I believe that everyone can come to appreciate nature if it is presented in the correct way. I post blogs, podcasts, pictures and more at my personal website, and I am happy to discuss my work on Twitter, or on Facebook.