Joint OEB/Entomology PhD Candidate
B.S., Rowan University, 2007
M.S., Towson University, 2010
Scale insect systematics, trophobiotic associations with ants
My research focuses on the farming practices of ants, especially ‘cattle farming’ ants that are associated with scale insects and depend upon them for survival. A great number of ant species tend to other insects and procure a reliable food source in exchange for their protection. In some of these mutualisms, the ants and/or associates are completely dependent upon this relationship. I study the taxonomy and phylogeny of obligate scale insect mutualists and the natural history of their ant association.
Some of the most interesting and puzzling ant associations involve scale insects including mealybugs (Pseudococcidae) and armored scale insects (Diaspididae). I am currently investigating the curious association between ants and diaspidids. This is a ‘curious’ association because diaspidids do not produce the primary food reward, called honeydew, that serves as the ‘payment’ for ant attendance in most symbioses. It is therefore unclear what the attending ants are receiving in exchange for their protection. These ant-associated armored scale insects are also unique in that they lack the characteristic waxy ‘armored’ body cover for which the family is named. I have also studied the systematics of the obligately ant-associated mealybug tribe, Xenococcini, and the history of their association with Acropyga ants. In this extraordinary mutualism, an Acropyga queen will carry a gravid mealybug along for her nuptial flight and use this mealybug as a ‘seed’ individual for her foundling colony. This behavior has not only been observed in contemporary species, but has also been captured in 20 million year old amber fossils.
Some of the broader questions/topics that interest me in regards to ant association are:
uncovering cophylogenesis and coevolution between associated lineages,
determining what influence, if any, ant association has on biodiversity,
and learning more about the evolution of complex agricultural practices of ants.