WyoPanama: Exploring Ants and the Challenges of Field Research

Post by Max Packebush
I struggled to think of ideas for my individual project before I was exposed to the neotropics of Panama. I had little comprehension of the endless curiosity that would be stimulated by this part of the world. As soon as I arrived in this beautiful environment, I was incapacitated by the volume of ideas that I had.
My creative ideas and inquisition of the ecology were so overwhelming that I struggled to focus on just one subject. This eclectic approach to science was riveting, but far from productive. All of my ideas began to quickly stack atop each other as I thought of new questions.
Max stands in front of the signs welcoming us to Gamboa, Panama. His excitement for the trip is palpable. (Image © 2020, Ethan Rowe/WyoPanama 2.0)

Through everyday observation of leaf cutter ants, I noticed that the average caste size of leaf cutter ants, was across the board, dependant on time of day. After lengthy literature review, I found little to no published articles that acknowledge this phenomenon. Therefore, I wanted to study this behavior.

Leafcutter ants bringing leaves deep into their nest. This colony resides in the backyard of Casa 152, where we lived during our time in Gamboa, Panama. They are Atta colombica, a leafcutter ant species common in the neotropics. (Image © 2020, Max Packebush/WyoPanama 2.0)

In order to understand if ants of different sizes really were active at different times of day, I walked the jungle of Pipeline road and the town of Gamboa in search of as many leafcutter ant hives as possible (species was irrelevant to this experiment). I found around 20 colonies, but only about half of them were active enough to take data on. The ants would generally begin their day at 6:30/7:00 am, and gradually increase their activity through the morning. 

Once I had located a plethora of hives, I filmed and measured the leaf cutter ants incrementally throughout the morning in order to observe the ants. After filming 10 minutes every 30 minutes, I carefully stopped the camera, so as to keep the camera angle consistent throughout my entire observational period. After conducting all my observations, I hoped to answer my driving question: are leaf cutter ants of different sizes more active during certain parts of the day?

Max, setting up a camcorder on a tripod early in the morning. The camcorder is positioned directly over the leafcutte ant trail. (Image © 2020, Max Packebush/WyoPanama 2.0)

I plan to continue this project by analyzing this recorded data to empirically map the average size of leaf cutter ants through the day/morning. In order to turn this raw footage into functional data, I will have to thoughtfully review the footage and measure each ant in reference to the ruler used. After measuring and averaging the size of each ant per half hour, I will have productive and accessible data.

The data that I hope to obtain from this study will be useful for understanding leaf cutter behavior throughout the day. This information can be used by scientists, entomologists, and the public to understand more about an important behavioral aspect of a prevalent superorganism.

For more about Max’s research and the WyoPanama program, visit the following links: WyoPanama course on Facebook | The UWyo Biodiversity Institute’s spring 2020 series on WyoPanama research | WyoPanama course website

Max (Littleton, CO) is a freshman majoring in microbiology and molecular biology at the University of Wyoming. He developed and led his own, independent research project as part of the WyoPanama study abroad course supported by the UWyo Honors College and Travel Abroad program. The course is led by Department of Zoology and Physiology faculty Patrick Kelley and Bethann Garramon Merkle, with invaluable support from TA and international master’s student Laura Gomez-Murillo.


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