How all ecology grad students can benefit from an OTS course


If you’ve only just started grad school, or if you’re getting ready to finish, there are a ton of great reasons to take the OTS course this summer. The Organization for Tropical Studies courses aren’t just for tropical biologists, and the experience is useful for all ecology grad students.

  • Breadth of research methods — Gain experience in running experiments in a great variety of biomes, fields, and taxa. No matter your speciality, it can be useful and important to know how to mark insects, do biogeochemistry and microbial ecology, dissect flowers and do pollination experiments, mist net birds and bats, make and analyze sound recordings, and much, much more.
  • Making connections — You will work very closely with a large number of faculty from universities all over the United States and elsewhere. More important, you’re in the course with a bunch of other grad students who are typically fun-loving and academically talented. The course is work hard-play hard environment and you’ll go back home with new friends and colleagues, some of whom you’ll stay in touch with for the remainder of your career. You want to emerge from grad school with a network that goes well beyond your own institution. This is a great way to make that happen.
  • Experimental design — This course will have you designing and conducting experiments at many different sites in small groups. This really helps you learn how to develop the right questions, design the most appropriate experiments and that you’ve had the best analysis in mind the whole time.
  • Data analysis — Because you are involved in so many experiments, you gain experience with may kinds of analysis. The course has expert faculty including well-recognized statistical gurus who communicate in common English. You’ll get training in R to give you the tools that you need.
  • Science communication skills — Learn how to produce media that communicate your science with the public, by working with PhD scientists/filmmakers. Here are the tremendous results from a brief science communication project on the OTS course, from a post on the National Geographic Explorers Journal. The course runs its own blog and you have an opportunity to create podcasts and posts.
  • Experience with conservation in action — You’ll have the chance to interact with land managers and conservation professionals on the sites of ongoing projects. If you’re thinking about getting into the this aspect of the ecology business, you’ll have experiences and opportunities with making connections.
  • Tropical nature — If you haven’t ever spent time in the tropics, the biological diversity is stunning compared to the meager biota of the temperate zone. You get to see these biomes in the company of researchers who are experts in this environment and conduct a number of experiments. If you want to learn natural history and biodiversity, this is a chance to be in the field with the experts who can show you what you what to learn.
  • Units — You get six credit hours from the University of Costa Rica that (typically) count towards the coursework requirements of your program. So, there’s that, too.

Speaking just from my own experience, the course gave me so many skills — and ideas — that have been useful in many unpredictable ways. I’ve yet to meet anybody who has taken the course who has said it is anything short of incredibly useful, and I think everybody has rated it as a spectacular experience. In the course of your graduate career, it definitely is worth your time.

Here’s a pdf flyer with more info.

Here is the link to the course for summer 2014, with its list of great faculty and remarkable sites the course visits, and instructions on how to apply. The deadline for applications is just over a week away, but then there are rolling admissions afterwards.

Ant science: Thievery persists in a world of plenty


I can forgive people for overlooking the fascinating behaviors of the thieving ant Ectatomma ruidum. There are so many ants with peculiar and amazing features (like agricultural ants, and those with rampaging armies). Some just fly under the radar.

Here’s the latest from my lab.

A few decades ago, Mike Breed and his students were studying behavior, and one part of the work involved using baits to feed ants. He noticed that sometimes, when a colony brought a good piece of bait underground, a different ant took it out of the colony, and carried it in a straight line to a neighboring colony. With a set of careful observations, excavations, labeling workers and some nestmate recognition chemistry, he described a unique phenomenon.

The sneaky thief

The sneaky thief

Colonies of E. ruidum steal from one another, all the time. They have a caste of specialized thieves that spend their time hiding out in a particular neighboring colony. When some good food comes along, they bring it back to their own colony. The best food items move around from one colony to another like uneaten Christmas fruitcake, only everybody wants it instead of passing it off.  The behavior of the thieving has been worked out well by the Breed lab, in a great set of papers. (And, I’m biased, because Mike Breed was my own PhD advisor, the best one I could have had.)

I wanted to understand how this thieving can persist, with everybody stealing from everyone else. This phenomenon makes a jumble of most game theoretical models, because everyone seems to be cheating, all of the time. What makes thieving happen? If they have plenty of food, do they stop thieving?

We ran an experiment in which we gave the colonies as much food as they ever could have wanted. It turns out that the rate of thieving did slow down.

The surprising result was that they kept continuing to steal from their neighbors, even when they had everything they could ever want.

This raises many more questions about the function, evolution and maintenance of thievery. We’re actively working on that, with some work finished and more in the works, and I’ll share more as it comes out.

How this project happened in my teaching institution

I’ve long wanted to work on the ecology of thieving, ever since I helped out on a project with these ants. However, I never had the time to set aside.

In 2008, a friend of mine had a PhD student who was working on poneromorph ants, who was interested in getting some time in the tropics. I was down in Costa Rica with a group of undergrads at the field station, and Benoit Guénard joined us a few weeks. He was a tremendous influence on my students with his enthusiasm, natural history talent, and the most robust work ethic I’ve ever seen. Seriously. We knocked out this project together, with Benoit taking the lead.

So, it took 4 years to get this paper out. In that time, Benoit completed his dissertation on the invasion of the Giant Needle Ant and also has done some top notch work on the macroecology of ant diversity patterns. Once his dissertation was out of the way, he focused on writing up this thieving experiment that we started early on in his dissertation. (I also have a few other collaborations with grad students, and former grad students, that are also awaiting a writeup. We’ll get to them, eventually. There are worse things than a backlog of papers that need to be written.)