I explained my first scientific publication using memes because, why not?
For the final chapter of my thesis, I was lucky enough to collaborate with my friends. Together, we created and published a fascinating study with an enormous amount of data, and very complicated results. It's my first ever peer reviewed publication, and you can read the whole thing here.
Unfortunately, the paper isn't light reading. I have had great difficulty summarizing the results, both with other entomologists and non-expert friends. So I’m going to try doing it with memes because, why not?
In order for you to digest these memes, there are just a few important details you need to know:
Trail pheromones are like a trail of breadcrumbs for ants.
When a foraging ant finds a source of food, she needs to let her nestmates know so they can work together to carry it home. To do this, she walks home, leaving a chemical trail behind her as she walks. Other ants use this trail to find the food, and in turn, reinforce it themselves. It's a really amazing system for collective decision making!
Ants, and their pheromones, are extremely diverse.
There are over 40,000 species of ants!!! Only a handful have an identified trail pheromone. Trail pheromones are extremely diverse in their chemical properties, and identifying them can be challenging (for an example, see here).
We don't know that much about trail pheromones!
Besides a few specific examples, we don't know what trail pheromones mean for interactions between different ant species. Do they smell each others’ trails? Do they follow them, or avoid them?
What we actually did:
We took 6 trail pheromones used by 16 different ant species, and created a 6-pheromone-blend. We presented this blend, in an artificial trail, to 3 local ant species. We recorded how much they followed this unusual, Frankenstien trail.
What we found, in memes:
Camponotus modoc, the western carpenter ant, appeared to notice no difference between the 6-pheromone-blend and their own natural trail. They happily followed either trail.
Lasius niger, AKA the black garden ant, actually preferred the 6-pheromone-blend trail to their own, natural trail. They preferred it a lot, walking twice as far as they did on their own natural trail.
Myrmica rubra, AKA the European fire ant, did not cooperate during our study. They didn't follow the 6-pheromone-blended trail, OR their own natural trail. They did almost nothing at all. We learned that this experimental design won't work for this species.
Why does this even matter?
Ants are notoriously hard to manage. All kinds of species, including local and invasive species, can become a problem. If ants readily follow trail pheromones, it might mean we can lead them to traps, for pest management purposes. Realistically, the average person cannot tell different ant species apart, so we envisioned a blend of pheromones that could attract multiple pest species.
So, are these good results?
Mostly, yes! In the two species that responded to our experimental design, we saw a positive or neutral effect of combining multiple pheromones! So it seems that a multi-pheromone lure could be possible.
I don't know, I'm busy writing my thesis!
The research will continue though, by my former-research-assistant turned superstar-grad-student Jaime Chalissery. Jaime will be adding more ants to the experiment, such as the Red Imported Fire Ant. Follow him for updates here.
Finally, here's one of my favourite ant memes. This one is much higher quality that I am capable of.