New Paper Alert! Ants dominate waste management in tropical rainforests

The Termite Ant Research Team has a new paper out in The Journal of Animal Ecology:

Ants are the major agents of nutrient redistribution from tropical rainforests.


Here is the press release (from The University of Liverpool)

"A study by the University of Liverpool, in collaboration with the Natural History Museum, has found that ants are responsible for moving more than half of food resources from the rainforest floor, playing a key role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem.

A large scale study of the rainforests of Malaysian Borneo by Liverpool researchers found that ants alone were responsible for removing more than half of food resources from the rainforest floor.

The rest of the waste was removed by all other animals combined, including mammals, birds and other vertebrates and invertebrates. Resources and waste which ants remove include dead animal bodies, seeds and fruits.

Liverpool ecologist, Dr Kate Parr, said: “The movement, consumption and recycling of dead organic material in ecosystems is important because it facilitates nutrient redistribution and decomposition. Because ants collect waste products and take them to their nests, they create hotspots of nutrients where plants and microbes thrive; this maintains a diverse and healthy soil.

The study showed that in the absence of ants no other animals can compensate for this role. Therefore, if ants weren’t carrying out waste removal, dead organic material would build up and decompose more slowly in situ creating a more homogenous, less diverse soil environment.

Lead author of the study, Dr Hannah Griffiths, also with the University’s School of Environmental Sciences added: “This work is important because tropical rainforests are some of the most threatened ecosystems on the planet, losing species at an alarming rate.

“Understanding exactly what role different animals play in ecosystems is akin to putting in place pieces of an incredibly complex puzzle. The more pieces we have in place, the better we see the full picture and understand how the system functions. This in turn allows us to predict the consequences of species losses and create measures to mitigate the negative consequences of human impacts on ecosystems.”

The paper `Ants are the major agents of resource removal from tropical rainforests’ is published in the Journal of Animal Ecology (doi: 10.1111/1365-2656.12728)."

This paper has been covered by the Daily Mail,, The Daily Ant and Nature.


September 2016

Here is a long overdue photo blog update from our last TART field trip!

We started our field trip with a visit to the new research facility at Imbak Canyon. This was a fun side trip to see the facility and a different part of Sabah. Imbak is very beautiful and the new facility is massive, perhaps a good place to do research in the future.

Back to Maliau, we set up multiple expeirments on our termite and ant suppresson plots.

We came across some amazing wildlife while working in the forest and went on some night walks to look for nocturanal wild life.

BES 2016

The Termite-Ant Research Team had a productive BES 2016 and saw some excellent talks, especially the plenaries from Anne Chao and Hugh Possingham.

Education owl at BES

I presented the work from a collaborative review of forest canopy science. This review incorporates expertise from 17 co-authors from around the world and synthesizes the recent advances in canopy science, providing an update on the newly expanded canopy crane network and suggesting future directions for canopy science. Below is a video I took going up the newly built canopy crane near Xishauangbanna Tropical Botanic Garden, Yunnan, China.

Photos from the field - Biodiversity and Landuse Impacts (BALI) Termite-Ant Research Team (TART) expedition Feb/March 2016

Several TARTs set out from London on valentines day, to begin what we thought would be a three month field season. An extreme El Niño event scuppered some of our plans, but we were still able to spend six weeks at Maliau Basin, carrying out several experiments and collecting samples. Here are some photos from the field trip.

Maliau river

We are interested in the roles termites and ants play in rainforests. In order to study this, we have suppressed ants and termites on 50x50m plots at Maliau Basin, Sabah. In one of our experiments, we use three tools - fake caterpillars, live mealworms and seeds, to measure how the removal of termites and ants changes ecological communities, predation rates and seed removal rates.


Although it was very dry during our field expedition, we were able to collect decomposition experiments that we had established in 2015. We used wood blocks and leaf litter bags to investigate the roles of fungi and termites in rainforest decomposition. We were also able to measure C02, soil nutrients and bioturbation, as well as the continued measurement of herbivory on our experimental seedlings.


During our trip to Malaysia, we able to participate in 'Friends of Borneensis', a three day even held at University Malaysia Sabah. During Friends of Borneensis, high school students camp, learn different aspects of rainforest ecology and field-based ecological methods, including collecting insects, flying drones and tree climbing. We gave talks about using insects in rainforest ecology and had a great time with the students who were really keen.

 Hannah and Lou with student at friends of Bornensis

Hannah and Lou with student at friends of Bornensis

BORNEENSIS refers to the reference collection for flora and fauna in Borneo. One of the objectives of the establishment of BORNEENSIS is to educate and increase the awareness among Malaysians of the natural heritage.

Our Feb/March field trip was a success! We are now planning our next field trip - September and October 2016, when we will continue our experiments and sampling.

 Sunday swim at Maliau river

Sunday swim at Maliau river

 Sunset at Maliau

Sunset at Maliau

 Kota Kinablau sunset

Kota Kinablau sunset

Flora and fauna of the BALI (Biodiversity and Land Use-Impacts) termite-ant research team Feb/March 2016 trip

Although it was a very dry period in February and March 2016, we did encounter some very beautiful and exciting animals and plants!

Tractor millipede at Maliau Basin

Malaysian forest scorpion


Giant millipede

One week to go!

Just a week left before our three-month field trip to Borneo. I think we have got nearly everything sorted out, including 6 crates of equipment sent to Universiti Malaysia Sabah. It's Chinese New Year so there might be some delays, we'll see what happens!

This week we picked up a set of thermochron ibutton moisture and temperature loggers and a fancy field reader. Excited to test these out!


A summer with the wildlife of Sabah’s Lost World - by Hannah Griffiths

Within a month of joining the Termite and Ant Research (TART) Team this year I found myself on a plane with a Malay phrase book in hand. The TARTS (Kate Parr, Paul Eggleton, Theo Evans, Louise Ashton and Hannah Griffiths) were winging our way to Kota Kinabalu to start three months of fieldwork in Maliau Basin, a 390km2 expanse of pristine tropical rainforest in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo.

The TARTs at the Universiti Mayalsia Sabah in Kota Kinabalu (left). Photo: Louise Ashton. The Maliau River running through the Maliau basin (left) Photo: Hannah Griffiths.

The TARTS are part of a wider team of scientists working together within the BALI consortium, a large NERC (National Environment Research Agency) funded research group dedicated to understanding how biodiversity and land-use change impacts on tropical ecosystem function. Our roll within the consortium is to investigate how ants and termites control the community composition of other invertebrate groups, as well their impact on ecological processes such as decomposition and nutrient cycling in tropical forests.

Examples of our study subjects: termites belonging to the genus Hospitalitermes (left), and an ant of the genus Polyrachis (right). Photos: Louise Ashton.

To do this, we have established twelve experimental plots (50m x 50m) in the field at Maliau: on four of these we have supressed the termites, on another four, the ants have removed, and on the final four plots we have left both the termites and ants alone. The idea being that if we experimentally eliminate these important invertebrates from areas of the forest, we can observe what happens to other aspects of the ecosystem when they are not there. This allows us to gain a better understanding of their exact role in complex rainforest environments. The plots were set up in October 2014 using (a lot of) poisoned loo rolls and cat food baits, for the termites and ants respectively, and their numbers have been maintained at low levels ever since.

Termite poison being prepared, drying in the heat, ready to be deployed onto our plots. Photo: Kate Parr.

Having left the forest to respond to the absence of the ants or termites for almost a year, the TARTs returned in summer 2015 to get to work monitoring the ecological consequences of our experimental manipulations. This involved placing hundreds of tea bags, pieces of wood, and bags of leaf litter onto the forest floor to investigate rates of decomposition; transplanting thousands of seedlings onto our plots to assess leaf damage as a result of herbivory; as well as sampling as many different invertebrate groups as possible to evaluate how removal of their major predators, the ants, affects their numbers.

Decomposition experiments: Louise working on some late night wood block preparation (left); Louise and I homogenising leaf litter (right). Photos: Hannah Griffiths

Our transplanted seedlings for the herbivory experiment: left shows a herbivore exclusion cage and right demonstrates our numbering of the leaves to keep track of many leaves each plant is gaining or loosing.

Rain, Dino and Sarah setting up a light trap to sample moths from the canopy (left); Louise’s moth collection (right). Photos: Louise Ashton.

Tropical fieldwork can be hard, it involves many long days in a hot and humid environment where plenty of things would sting or bite you or suck your blood given the chance. However, one best aspects of the job is the opportunity to work closely with interesting people from all over the world. Out in Maliau we are lucky enough to be helped by a team of amazingly enthusiastic and talented field assistants, which made our work not only possible and a lot of fun. And, as well as the opportunity to meet all kinds of people, being a tropical ecologist allows us to spend time in one of the biologically diverse and fascinating habitats on earth. Practically everyday we encounter something new and unexpected; it could be an elephant, a sun-bear, a giant beetle or crazy caterpillar. You never know what we are going to see or hear, and that makes going to work each day pretty exciting.


Team seedling: Lou and I with some of our amazing field assistances, Austin, Ellie and Jiejie in the field setting up our seedling experiments. Photo: Louise Ashton. Some of the researchers enjoying a Sunday breakfast at the scientist’s annex (right) photo: Hannah Griffiths

Some of the creatures we encountered during our time in the field: a beautiful caterpillar (left). Photo: Louise Ashton. A Rhinoceros beetle (right).  Photo: Hannah Griffiths.


Termite-Ant Research Team field trip 2015

Here are some photos from our 2015 field trip.
Paul, Kate, Hannah, Lou and Fez went to Maliau Basin, Sabah in May 2015. We were joined by two honorary TARTs - Amy Zane and Alex Cheesman for a week of brainstorming while we began to plan and set up experiments on our termite and ant suppressed plots.

Louise and Hannah stayed on for a further 3 months of field work fun!

Louise and Hannah stayed on for a further 3 months of field work fun!

BES 2015

The Termite-Ant Research Team had a successful trip to the British Ecological Society (BES) meeting in Edinburgh this week.