TYLER (September 21, 2023) – The University of Texas at Tyler received part of a $1.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study ants and their potential impacts on soils in southeastern U.S. environments.
“This collaborative research award recognizes the high quality of our biology department’s work, which will help determine whether soil animals such as ants impact soils at larger scales,” said Dr. Kouider Mokhtari, UT Tyler interim senior vice president for research. “This novel research has broad applications that could advance our understanding of how soil nutrients and mineral composition are impacted by ant nests.”
UT Tyler will collaborate with the University of Central Florida and Yale University’s School of the Environment on the two-year, two-part project. A controlled-field experiment will be conducted in Florida, where researchers will remove and add ant nests and document the physical, chemical and microbial changes in soils as a result of the nests. The team will also analyze field surveys of ants’ nests and soil attributes along a 1,000-mile stretch from central Texas to central Florida.
“Organic matter in soils is an important ecosystem property as it can impact plant growth and reproduction,” said UT Tyler associate professor of biology Dr. Jon Seal, who leads the UT Tyler research team. “Ants and other soil animals have been known to impact soils in the vicinity of their nests, especially sandy soils, as sand is loose and easily moved around, compared to other soils such as clay.”
Ants that nest in the soil are known to move or churn soil below ground, which is called bioturbation –– or they may deposit soil from deep layers to the surface, a process known as biomantling, according to Seal, who studies ant biology.
“The impacts of these movements could be profound since most soil nutrients are found in the uppermost layers. For example, ants could cover nutrient rich topsoil with soil from deeper nutrient poor soil, thus placing it out of reach of some plant species,” Seal said. “On the other hand, ant colonies produce ‘trash,’ which can be like underground compost piles, and thus be a source of soil fertility.”
Seal said soils in the southeastern United States, especially those in East Texas, tend to be composed primarily of sand and are rather nutrient poor, compared to soils found in the Texas prairies and Midwest. “Most nutrients are found in the upper most layers and result from the decay of organic matter, which are quickly lost or leached out due to frequent rains and the large size and porousness of the sand grains,” he added.
Seal joined the UT Tyler biology faculty in 2013. Other UT Tyler researchers are associate professor of biology Dr. Katrin Kellner, who also joined UT Tyler in 2013, and Dr. Matthew Greenwold, an assistant professor of biology, who joined UT Tyler in 2020. Kellner focuses on population genetics and microbiome analysis. Greenwold’s expertise is in bioinformatics.
With a mission to improve educational and health care outcomes for East Texas and beyond, UT Tyler offers more than 90 undergraduate and graduate programs to nearly 10,000 students. Through its alignment with UT Tyler Health Science Center and UT Health East Texas, UT Tyler has unified these entities to serve Texas with quality education, cutting-edge research and excellent patient care. Classified by Carnegie as a doctoral research institution and by U.S. News & World Report as a national university, UT Tyler has campuses in Tyler, Longview, Palestine and Houston.