Can Ants Help Prepare Us for the Future?

June 29, 2010
By Cherry Crayton

Rob Dunn, assistant professor of biology at NC State and author of Every Little Thing, wrote an essay for our Autumn 2009 issue of NC State magazine about the “thousands of species . . . found on an average, living human body.” The most fascinating thing about those thousands of species: “Until very recently,” he wrote, we didn’t even realize they were there. Now Dunn and his research team are taking a look at another group of species that can be easy to miss during walks in the woods: ants and other forest insects. As reported in The News & Observer yesterday:

To forecast how ants and other forest insects might respond to a warming world, Dunn and his colleagues have spent the past two years building a dozen open-top enclosures in a part of the Duke Forest, an expanse of hardwoods and pines in Orange County.

Why?

“Some models predict that in 2100, the climate of Massachusetts will resemble that of North Carolina, and that of North Carolina will resemble Central Mexico,” [Dunn told The N&O]. . . . We’re simulating the future and seeing how it plays out.”

Why ants, and what are the implications of the findings for humans? From The N&O:

The study’s findings are important not just because ants are a fundamental part of healthy forests, said Dunn, but also because they might function as an early warning system for environmental threats to human beings.

“Ants and other social insects can serve as a model of how societies in general — be they human or insect — respond to environmental change,” Dunn said.

Read the full story here. You can also read the essay that Dunn wrote for NC State magazine here.

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