Group Menzel

CHEMICAL ECOLOGY AND COMMUNITY ORGANIZATION IN ANTS

Keywords: chemical ecology, evolution of cuticular hydrocarbon profiles, antipredator behaviour, interspecific interactions, ecosystem functions of ants, ant community ecology, division of labor, tropical rainforest, ants, spiders, aphids.

 

RESEARCH INTERESTS

Our group is interested in interspecific interactions between different ant species and between ants and other arthropods. Interactions between ant species can be competitive and aggressive, but also mutualistic, commensalistic or parasitic. We study these interactions from two perspectives: from a top-down perspective, we study community organization and ecosystem functions in ant communities in tropical rainforests. From a bottom-up perspective, we investigate the mechanisms in specific interactions between few species. We study behavioural interactions and chemical cues that are involved in ant-ant and ant-aphid interactions, as well as predator-prey interactions between other arthropods.

These interactions are often driven by chemical cues – cues from the insects’ body surface (cuticular hydrocarbons) or indirect cues, such as chemical footprints. We recently showed that ants respond to chemical footprints of other colonies and species, which may have great effects on their foraging behaviour. In general, the most important intra- and interspecific communication signal in ants and other insects are cuticular hydrocarbons (CHC). Therefore, we do not only investigate their role in interactions, but also study the proximate and ultimate factors that shape their composition. CHC experience selection from multiple sides, since beside their communication function they also act as waterproofing agent. In our group, we study how CHC profiles evolve and diversify in response to selection pressures arising from their multiple functions. Furthermore, we study how individual ants can adjust their profiles in response to different climatic conditions. To understand the molecular basis of CHC biosynthesis and evolution, we analyse gene expression in ants from different climatic conditions and in closely related, but chemically different ants. 

Current research questions include:

  • Evolution and phylogenetic signal of cuticular hydrocarbon profiles in ants
  • Effects of the parasitic cestode Anomotaenia brevis on behaviour and cuticular hydrocarbons of the ant Temnothorax nylanderi
  • Climatic effects on cuticular hydrocarbon profiles of Myrmica ants
  • CHC diversification in mutualistic ant-ant associations (parabioses) in tropical South America
  • Ecosystem functions and community organization in ants of tropical rainforests in South America and Southeast Asia.
  • Relations between ecological niches and body morphology in tropical and temperate ants
  • Antipredator behaviour and non-consumptive effects of spider predators on arthropod prey: behavioural interactions, chemical cues, and ecological consequences 

Topics for research practicals, bachelor, diploma or master theses:

  • How do ants respond to chemical footprints?
  • How do learning and individual personality influence ant behaviour?
  • Mutualism or not? Costs and benefits in ant-aphid symbioses
  • What do ants eat? Dietary niche partitioning within and across ant species
  • Chemical diversification in ant species of tropical South America
  • Relation between chemical differentiation and nestmate recognition
  • How do ants change their chemical profiles in response to a different climate?
  • How are chemical profiles and drought tolerance related across arthropod taxa?

 Methods used:

  • Field experiments
  • Behavioural experiments in the lab
  • Chemical analyses of cuticular hydrocarbons and fatty acids using GC-MS
  • Transcriptome analyses (RNAseq)
  • Population genetics
  • Agent-based modelling

 

GROUP MEMBERS

 

Group leader

PhD students:

Master/Diploma students:           

  • Jacqueline Sahm (Chemical and morphological differentiation of populations in the parabiotic ant species Crematogaster levior)

 

Bachelor students:

  • Joschua Friedel (Zeitliche Veränderungen der kutikulären Kohlenwasserstoffprofile bei Myrmica rubra)
  • Marti Wittke (Agentenbasierte Modellierung der Reaktion fouragierender Ameisen auf chemische Fußspuren)
  • Lisa Gerbes (Chemische Differenzierung und Klimanische bei mitteleuropäischen Ameisenarten)

 

Former PhD students: