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UT Tyler Receives More Than $600,000 From National Science Foundation 

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. 


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