If a Tree Falls in the Forest, Do Ants Care?

Posted July 21st, 2015 at 11:53 am.

Photo credit: Andrew McDevitt

Photo credit: Andrew McDevitt

“Ants work hard,” explains Tess McCabe ‘16. “In fact, a single leafcutter colony can consume more than the average cow.”

During her summer internship at Harvard Forest and Black Rock Forest, McCabe got a close-up look at just how hard members of the Formicidae family have to work these days just to survive.

“Our forests are under threat from two different tree-killing blights,” she explains. Wooly adelgid, an invasive insect, is killing off Eastern Hemlocks in the Harvard Forest, while Black Rock Forest is at risk from an outbreak of sudden oak death.

The loss of foundation species like hemlock and oak is having a dramatic impact on the forests and their fauna—including McCabe’s ant subjects. Her summer research explored how these changes in the forest affect the resident ants. “Our forests are changing,” she explains, “and we’re trying to predict how the ant communities, and the skills they offer, will change with them.”

In the field, McCabe poked at logs, overturned rocks, kicked stumps, and crawled through dead leaves to collect nest samples. Back in the lab, she spent her time identifying ants by species and coding them for analysis. “Now I can pick up an ant and just know its genus,” she says, “which is the closest thing to a superpower I’ve ever had. But I have to admit, the coding is my favorite part. Whether it’s in class or for research, it’s really fun to tease a story out of data. I can’t wait to see what stories these ants will tell!”

Theirs isn’t the only story waiting for a resolution. McCabe herself has taken her internship as an opportunity to consider life after Bryn Mawr. Having had her sights set on graduate school, she was thrilled when her fellow interns proposed a GRE study club. Then again, her mentor has put her in touch with contacts to talk to about corporate jobs.

“There are plenty of lifelines,” she says. “I just have to start grabbing one!”

To learn more about what Bryn Mawr students are up to this summer, visit the Summer Internship Blog.

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