Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life. E.O. Wilson, 1984

26 Nov 2014

A model of things to come

Any attempts to unravel nature’s complex web face challenges, and in the 5 months since my last post, I have faced my fare share. In aiming to understand Amazon forest floor ant community structure, I have dug 460 pitfall traps, sieved through 360m2 of leaf litter, and sorted around 30, 000 insect samples, two thirds of which were ants. These ants were sorted to morpho-species level and around 3000 were mounted onto pins for determination, resulting in a collection of roughly 250 species. Needless to say I have been busy, and needing a break from the microscope.
But when muddying waters, you cannot help but wait to see what is revealed when things fall back into place. I have glimpsed the complex world of insects within tropical forests, but I still have little insight into how these incredible pools of diversity come together to provide the functions necessary to keep the cogs of the world’s most biodiverse regions turning. Any attempt to do so requires a brave step towards whole systems analysis, steps already undertaken by fellow researchers across the world. The SAFE project in Borneo in addition to the DIADEMA programme in French Guiana are collating the work of big teams of researchers to attempt to understand the responses of biodiversity function and structuring against the twin threats of habitat destruction and climate change.
Others are using novel ways to explore nature’s machinations, through the use of model systems. Rather than stretching often thin resources, scientists can focus their efforts on small discrete ecosystems which can reveal the forces shaping natural communities at all scales. The Srivastava lab at the University of British Columbia, and EcoFog in French Guiana use epiphytes as models to explore environmental variation on food web structure, and over the coming months, inspired by their work I hope to do the same. I am about to embark on an incredibly exciting PhD project, which will enable me to push my boundaries, and hopefully those of others too!