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Finding Genius Podcast

Dec 29, 2020

It's easy to overlook an ant, but look again. As one not-so-small part of the ecological role of insects, ants have a profound impact, from their mutualistic relationship with plants to their ability to farm and grow fungus for food. Ecologist Tom Fayle shares many of these fascinating ant facts.

Listen and learn

  • How ants live inside plant species, protecting them from other pests and getting a habitat in return to house their ant colony structure,
  • How some ants and plants even have an exclusionary mutualism, where each particular species is dependent on the other, and
  • What other ant life cycle habits stand out, from ants infected by a fungus that changes their behavior to ant queen competition for a plant domatia. 

Tom Fayle is an ecologist and research scientist at the Czech Academy of Sciences. As an ecologist, he researches nature's networks, examining how species interact and impact each other alongside abiotic factors like elevation and human-generated impacts from deforestation to climate change.

He has specified his research to ant ecology and shares some jaw-dropping stories of ant behavior. While ants don't eat plants for the most part, they do live inside plants. In fact, many plant and ant species have a mutualistic relationship, where each provides a benefit to the other towards a healthier life and reproductive cycle. 

He shares some of these examples, including ants protecting plants by attacking caterpillars that are trying to eat the plant. Ants can even weed, cleaning plants of encroaching vines and clarifying the surface of leaves from small epiphytes and lichens. In return, ants have a place to live. Structures plants produce call donatia can house ants, or they might use hollow stem structures.

Plants can even feed ants through liquid sugar production from nectar. Ecological relationships can also be parasitic, as is the case with a fungus that infects an ant, even controlling its behavior to locate itself in a spot that's prime for fungal growth. He also discusses his future plans researching topics that include exciting PhD and postdoc opportunities. Listen in for more details.

For more information, see For information specific to his work, see

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