1) Coevolution of Acropyga ants and mealybugs:
Acropyga ants display a fascinating behavior I have termed trophophoresy. Trophophoresy is the behavior of a queen ant taking with her on her mating flight a mealybug from her birth nest (LaPolla, 2002). This mealybug serves as a "seed" individual through which a new colony of mealybugs will be created. The ants feed on the sugary substances produced by the mealybugs. It is believed the ants and mealybugs are mutually dependent on one another for survival. Acropyga ants are, in a sense, the dairy farmers of the ant world.
We know virtually nothing about the symbiosis between Acropyga ants and their mealybug “cattle.” Investigating the biological aspects of this complex symbiosis has become a major component of my research program. In collaboration with Drs. Ted Schultz & Sean Brady (National Museum of Natural History) and Dr. Joseph Bischoff (National Institutes of Health-GenBank), several important studies are planned over the next several years.
2) Biodiversity Studies
I have employed the replicable "ALL" (Ants of the Leaf Litter) protocol to examine patterns of ant diversity across South America. In collaboration with Dr. Ted Schultz (NMNH) and doctoral student Jeffery Sosa-Calvo (U Maryland-College Park), my research project will continue gathering and examining leaf litter ant data from Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, Brazil and Peru. Over the next three years, we will complete on-going studies comparing the Guiana Shield fauna to the rest of South America to extrapolate patterns of endemism and identify areas of conservation concern.
3) Revisionary Systematics
I am in the process of completing a world revision of the ant genus Paratrechina, a large genus of over 140 species, and a group that contains many invasive species of agricultural and economic importance. With no taxonomic monograph available, most Paratrechina species are currently impossible to identify. Defining the species will help efforts at using biological control methods to control invasive species. The genus has never been revised and there are undoubtedly many new species awaiting discovery.
I am also currently beginning a world revision of the genus Discothyrea with doctoral student Jeffery Sosa-Calvo (U Maryland-College Park). These enigmatic ants are found worldwide in subtropical and tropical localities. They are thought to be specialist predators on arthropod eggs.
Funding in support of this research is provided by a grant from the National Science Foundation (DEB #0743542) to JSL.
LaPolla, J. S., G.M. Dlussky, & V. Perrichot. 2013. Ants and the fossil record. Annual
Review of Entomology 58: 609-30.
Kallal, R. J. & J.S. LaPolla. 2012. Monograph of Nylanderia (Hymenoptera:
Formicidae) of the World, Part II: Nylanderia in the Nearctic. Zootaxa 1-64.
Gotzek, D., S. G. Brady, R.J. Kallal, & J. S. LaPolla. 2012. The importance of using multiple approaches for identifying emerging invasive species: the case of the Rasberry Crazy Ant in the United States. PLoS One
LaPolla, J. S., R. J. Kallal and S. G. Brady. 2012. A new ant genus from the Greater
Antilles and Central America, Zatania (Hymenoptera: Formicidae), exemplifies the utility
of male and molecular character systems. Systematic Entomology 37: 200-214.