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Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Ants: one of the most important parts of our ecosystem

Watch where you step, because ants are crucial contributors in the continued discovery of the world we live in. Insects, although small, are one of the greatest indicators of biodiversity in an area.

Brian Fisher, chairman of the department of entomology at the California Academy of Sciences, has been studying insects and ants for decades. Fisher’s travels have taken him from the Congo, to the Amazon and now to Madagascar. Located off the coast of southeastern Africa, Madagascar is considered a model for biodiversity.

“We have been traveling all over Madagascar using insects to try to create a fine-scale biodiversity map,” Fisher said.

Fisher said that insects share an incredible amount of microendemism, meaning that these insects are unique to certain locations. Some scientists are reliant on mapping bird species to determine biodiversity, but this method has problems. Fisher said that if scientists were to try to map out biodiversity based on just birds, they would only get a broad history of the area.

“In eastern Madagascar, it’s the same bird species, it doesn’t matter where you go, you find the same bird species,” Fisher said. “We wouldn’t be able to see life’s story with just birds.”

Fisher said only about 15 percent of species have been discovered on earth. He said that it is only a matter of time before society loses the chance to learn more about the remaining 85 percent of undiscovered species.

“Many species will go extinct without us seeing them. It may be only 50 years until they are extinct, so it’s our last chance to try to explore the species before they’re gone,” Fisher said.

One of the biggest problems Madagascar faces is deforestation. Similar to how other forests around the world are being destroyed, Fisher is seeing humanity’s impacts in the forests of Madagascar.

“It’s shocking what has changed over the past 20 years. One of the forests that we studied last year is gone; it shows how vulnerable these areas are,” Fisher said.

According to a thorough forest review published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2010, deforestation has slowed over the past 10 years. However, the report states that each year, an area about the size of Costa Rica is lost to deforestation.

“I see poor recognition from the public. We need to do a better job to make people aware of why we need more people to inventory these things [biodiversity of areas],” Fisher said.

According to Fisher, ants act as great representatives of the biodiversity in areas because they eat the most diverse sets of foods and because within groups, they show the broadest range of lifestyles.

He said that the mining companies in Madagascar have got to know about the biodiversity of the areas they are trying to mine.

“They have to know what’s down there is not found elsewhere in Madagascar; the problem is we don’t have enough information to quickly provide it to people who want to mitigate our impacts,” Fisher said.

He hopes to create a sort of ant culture with people that is similar to the relationship people have with birds.

“My goal is to be like the bird people and have field guides that can make people aware of how important insects and ants are,” Fisher said.

“You could remove birds and have an ecosystem function; you couldn’t remove insects and have an ecosystem function,” Fisher said. “They are like the glue that holds the ecosystem together.”

Nevertheless, Fisher said that he is going to continue his pursuit to discover and preserve the insect species on earth.

Fisher is making his way from Madagascar and will be in Davis today for a seminar that will cover his experiences in Madagascar and relating to the ant diversity found there.  The seminar will be located in the Recreation Pool Lodge on La Rue Road, and will be from 6:15 to 7:15 p.m.

ERIC C. LIPSKY can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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