Observation of ant-fungus symbiosis

Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Dr. April Wright will present “Farmers Below Our Feet: How Ants Use Fungus to Shape Ecosystems” as part of the Science on Tap series.

The presentation is scheduled for Tuesday, May 1 at 7 p.m. in Tope La Catering. 

“I’ll be talking about ants and fungus farming,” said Wright. “We often think about farming as uniquely human, but various animals do it. Ants are probably the most prolific of that set of animals that farm. They have formed a relationship amongst fungus. Those relationships take various forms.”

Wright explained how ants and fungi work mutually.

“Some of the ants will cut off leaves and bring them back to their burrows and feed the fungus,” said Wright. “Other times, the fungus feeds on the waste of the colony. There are lots of ways that the trade manifests. We’re talking about the evolutionary history of how that trade came about.”

The research of this relationship was conducted with collaborators from Texas, California, Washington, Louisiana and Brazil. 

Wright shared the unique characteristic about the ant-fungus relationship that her team found during the research.

“What we found is that when you do some deep investigations of these ant colonies, one species of animal would farm one specific species of fungus,” said Wright. “We’re actually finding out there’s a lot of heterogeneity in what various ants are doing. So, they’re actually maybe more than one type of fungus per colony. To me, that just underscores the importance of doing long-term studies and looking closely at the biology that we’re seeing.”

Wright described how the findings from the research could benefit people.

“In terms of human implications, ants have enormous implications on soil quality,” said Wright. “The soil that you’re trying to grow your own food in might be impacted by the presence of these ant-fungus symbiosis. For humans who rely on agriculture, which is all of us, this is a potentially very important topic.”

From the presentation, Wright hopes the audience will enjoy some of the discovery and share the curiosity of the world we’re living in.

“Ants are very cool and exciting,” said Wright. “I’d like for people to get a sense of excitement for this vast ecosystem that we don’t even see because it’s mostly underground. The world is incredibly complex, and we understand so little of it. I look at these things, and it blows my mind. It’s wonderful and amazing, and I would like to communicate that to my audience.”