Research

Studying traffic behavior on leafcutter ant foraging trails at La Selva, Costa Rica

Research Overview

I am an evolutionary ecologist with broad interests.

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Excavating a Mycetagroicus nest in Brazil

I have always been fascinated with the natural world and with all branches of science. As an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois, I studied cell and molecular biology and learned wet lab skills as a research assistant. But a semester in Ecuador and a research experience working with Martin Wikleski on marine iguanas in the Galápagos Islands got me hooked on two things: organismal biology and tropical field work—two themes that have subsequently pervaded my life.

My dissertation research with Ulrich Mueller at the University of Texas at Austin examined how geography influences population genetic structure in leafcutting ants and their symbiotic fungi, a project that took me across much of Central and South America. I also worked on ant diversity projects on tropical islands, including Cocos Island and Fiji.

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A queen of the leafcutter ant, Atta cephalotes

After completing my dissertation, an IRFP postdoctoral fellowship from the National Science Foundation permitted me to continue working on the evolutionary history of tropical ants, in particular the genus Trachymyrmex. I was based first in Mauricio Bacci, Jr.’s lab at Universidade Estadual Paulista in Rio Claro, Brazil. This served as a convenient base for field expeditions across all of the major biomes in Brazil, the world’s most biologically diverse nation.

After a year of fieldwork, I returned to the United States and was hosted by the Entomology Department of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC where I worked with Ted Schultz and others to reconstruct the evolutionary history of the higher attines, including Trachmyrmex and the leafcutters.

In 2009, I joined the faculty at Rice University (in what was then the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology; now BioSciences at Rice). My position as a teaching professor allows me to focus much of my attention on undergraduate education, but I continue to conduct research. Recent projects include studying the impacts of flooding from Hurricane Harvey on ant communities in the Big Thicket region of east Texas, foraging behavior of tool-using Aphaenogaster ants, traffic behavior in Atta leafcutter ants, and the evolution of fungus-growing ants and their symbiotic partners. Many of these studies are conducted through collaborations with colleagues in the USA, Costa Rica, and Brazil.

Aphaenogaster ants using “tools” to absorb liquid food