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Ants on Broadway: Citizen Science in Riverside Park

Image: Ants on Broadway team at collection site in Riverside Park

One October morning I had the privilege of accompanying Drs. Holly Menninger and Amy Savage of Your Wild Life on Day 2 of the Ants on Broadway expedition.  Holly is an entomologist and Amy is an ecologist. Without having met either Holly or Amy before, I recognized the two immediately. They were dressed like field researchers and carried the requisite gear.

Before setting off to collect ants in Riverside Park, we sat and talked about Amy's ant ecology research and the larger mission of Your Wild Life and Holly's role communicating scientific research to non-specialists. Over the summer, Amy and Holly collected ants from Central Park and neighboring medians. The ants were presented with several liquid foods: extra virgin olive oil, sugar water, salt water, amino acids in solution, and water. The researchers observed that "park ants" expressed a preference for sugar water but overall enjoyed several of the liquid foods. In contrast, the "median ants" all showed a preference for the extra virgin olive oil. Typically, one would expects ants to select sugar over protein but the median is an extreme environment, noted Amy, so "median ants" selected the food - oil - that would best prepare them for winter.

Amy and Holly returned to New York in October to collect more ants, this time to answer questions about what ants are eating (are they eating more plants in cities?) and differences in species between sites as well as calculating species diversity and abundance. One way to figure out what ants are eating is to look at the levels and ratios of carbon and nitrogen isotopes.


After this overview, we walked into the park and Amy selected a spot for ant collecting. First, I helped Amy and Holly to set-up the "pecan sandies" bait stations. Cookie bits were arranged on a sheet of card stock and left undisturbed for 45 to 60 minutes. Ants collected from the stations are not included in the food studies.

Image: Ant collecting device (respirator)

Holly gave me a plastic canister and a pair of tweezers and showed me how to collect the ants. She also offered suggestions on where to look -- under rocks and downed branches. Holly used a respirator and I think Amy also used a canister and tweezers.

I don't recall our final numbers but they were less than expected. It was late in the season and cold, too. Unfortunately, no ants took the bait from the stations so all the ants we collected were found in the soil, under rocks or woody debris.

If the Your Wild Life team comes to your city, I highly recommend that you participate. You don't have to wait for a visit though, you can participate in several citizen scientist projects where you live. Check out The Wild Life of Our Homes and School of Ants. I hope to bring the latter to a school in my neighborhood. The results from the Belly Button Biodiversity project have been published (the paper's lead author is Jiri Hulcr). Lead project researcher Dr. Rob Dunn was interviewed by Leonard Lopate. Check out the belly button samples here and Rob Dunn's book titled The Wild Life of Our Bodies: Predators, Parasites, and Partners That Shape Who We Are Today.

Thank you, Holly and Amy.


Thanks spending your morning with us in the field, @localecologist! We appreciated your help with #antsonbroadway... as well as having an extra pair of hands ;) Thanks for sharing your experience with others in this GREAT post!
Georgia | local ecologist said…
Holly, thank you and Amy! I learned a lot and had fun.