What if someone told you the forests of Central America have been planned and managed for years—by a tiny ant? LMU Professor Victor Carmona thinks this may not be far from the truth.
Carmona has long been intrigued by the mutually beneficial relationship between ants and plant life in Neotropical dry forests. In graduate school, he stumped a professor who couldn’t explain what was driving the relationship.
Now, as a participant in the National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants Program, Carmona will get a chance to investigate these interactions in depth and analyze their impact on their surrounding environments.
“This keystone mutualism may play an important role in shaping the diversity of these forests,” said Carmona, an assistant professor of biology. “The ant-maintained clearings may be controlling where and when forest seedlings can grow.”
The grant will help fund Carmona’s research project that evaluates how the clearing of understory vegetation by symbiotic Pseudomyrmex ants impacts the richness, diversity, and composition of dry forest seedling communities in El Salvador and Costa Rica. This summer, Carmona will establish a permanent control and treatment plot in each country. Also, he will collect data and characterize the combination of interactions between the four species of Pseudomyrmex ants and the two species of Acacia plants that co-inhabit the forest.
Carmona chose Costa Rica and El Salvador because of the age difference in their forests. The early/mid-age forests in Costa Rica have been growing since the 1980s, while the highly disturbed/young forests in El Salvador have only been growing for five years or less. Carmona suspects that forest age will play an important part in evaluating ecological responses.
“The species we see in the young forests in El Salvador are quite different than the ones we see 25 years later in Costa Rica,” Carmona said. “I’m interested to see at what point do the Salvadoran forests resemble the Costa Rican forests, or if they’re themselves unique.”
The National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants Program provides funding for one year. Since Carmona’s project is long-term, he will have to apply for additional funding. Eventually, Carmona hopes to take students to the plots on an annual basis to collect data, report on their findings and track the changes that will occur over time.
“This project is mutually beneficial for me and my students,” Carmona said. “It will give students an opportunity to not just think about research, but to experience what they read about. Who knows what new questions that will inspire in them?”
For more information about the National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants Program, click here.