Research in the Lucky lab addresses fundamental questions about insect biodiversity and evolution and uses citizen science as a tool to answer these questions and educate the public (non-specialists) about insects, specifically, and about science in general. I focus on two main themes 1) insect evolution and biodiversity and 2) science communication with non-scientific audiences. I conduct research on aspects of ant diversity and systematics as well as develop and lead citizen science projects. Bringing together basic science and science communication/education allows me to take a synergistic approach to what often are seen as distinct approaches to science.
Understanding the context of diversification can lead to insight about how and when species came to occupy their current geographic ranges. Using both molecular phylogenetics techniques and classical morphological approaches, research in the Lucky Lab takes advantage of the tremendous diversity of ants to investigate evolutionary history in native and introduced ranges. These themes also have implications for conservation; by assessing the utility of ants as indicators for assessing conservation priorities and producing user-friendly taxonomic keys this research can be useful in evaluating habitats of concern.
Research in my lab focuses on ants as they relate to issues affecting whole ecosystems, with particular focus on the effects of exotic species introductions. Many terrestrial arthropod communities are now comprised of large numbers of exotic species, yet we do not fully understand how these ‘introduced communities’ come to be assembled and what influence they have on native species and ecosystem function. My lab addresses key questions about introduced species dynamics at several scales: 1) examining patterns of genetic diversity within populations of one of the most common urban ants in North America, the introduced Pavement Ant, Tetramorium sp. E (formerly T. caespitum) 2) assessing patterns of arthropod community composition in relation to invasive plant communities , and 3) determining the effects of abiotic factors, such as fire, on ant community composition in threatened or fragmented ecosystems.
The rugged mountains of New Guinea are among the last truly wild places on Earth. Many of the plants and animals that are found there are unique and poorly studied, and much of the biota there remains to be described by scientists. Among the animals that have yet to be fully catalogued in this hotspot of biodiversity are the ants. In collaboration with Conservation International’s Rapid Assessment Program and the Papua New Guinea Institute for Biological Research, I have surveyed the ants of several sites in Papua New Guinea which have been proposed as potential conservation areas and represent major gaps in our knowledge of PNG’s biological diversity. The objectives of the RAP survey are to collect biodiversity data for the area to aid local and regional conservation, management, and corridor planning, and to contribute to a greater understanding of the fauna and flora of this region.
Taxonomic studies that result in robust phylogenies of lineages make it possible to answer pressing biogeographic questions. The following are two examples taxonomically messy genera that were biologically rich, once phylogenies became available. Leptomyrmex is confined to eastern Australia and nearby Pacific islands, but fossil specimens from the Dominican Republic (20my) suggest extant species of Leptomyrmex are relicts of a lineage once widespread across the globe. The evolutionary history of Leptomyrmex may truly be a “considerable biogeographic anomaly” or it may possible that the Dominican amber fossil species are not Leptomyrmex after all. Lordomyrma provides a model system to examine pacific biogeography.For a remote archipelago, Fiji possesses an enigmatically rich ant fauna. In fact, this pacific nation hosts a diverse terrestrial biota more typical of a mature continental ecosystem than a collection of small and isolated islands. Why is this so? How did these species, many of them (such as iguanas) poor dispersers, colonize this landmass? Where did the ancestors of these colonizers come from – Australia, Asia, Melanesia, or elsewhere?
Most research involves a component of science communication with non-scientific audiences. I actively engage with non scientists through the citizen science projects School of Ants (www.schoolofants.org) and Backyard Bark Beetles (www.backyardbarkbeetles.org). These projects share the scientific goals of mapping insects over large geographic scales, and enlisting voluntary participants to aid in data collection. Educational goals include getting non-scientists involved in hands-on science to increase firsthand knowledge of the subject as well as the scientific process. The citizen-collected samples that result from this project form the basis of ongoing research on population-genetics of introduced species. These projects have reinforced the validity and replicability of citizen-collected data and demonstrated that projects with broad public participation can have positive scientific outcomes, educational impacts and can improve trust and interest in science.