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Academics

Olivia Parrott ’20

Ants may be little, but they are helpful at analyzing our ecosystem. Olivia Parrott ’20 is working with Associate Professor of Biology Sean Menke to study how wildlife adapts to urbanization.

Q: Why ants?

A: “We’re working with ants because they’re really important to our ecosystem. We put pitfall traps in sites along the Lincoln Park Zoo transect—a transect is a straight line from rural areas to the city—and left them for a few days. Then we took the traps out, brought them to our lab, identified the ant species within, and mounted the ants in a box. The other part of our project involved looking at how ants change their eating patterns. To do that, we put out baited pitfall traps at sites, city parks and medians nearby, and we sat there for two hours at a time to just observe the ants. We wrote down their activity and then took back the ants we found at the sites and identified them as well.”

Q: How long does it take to identify the ants?

A: “At first, it took me around half an hour. In the end, it took somewhere between five and 10 minutes. The point-mounting (putting the ants in the display box) was hard just with the really tiny ants and trying to get glue onto one part of the ant.”

Q: Do you just stick the ants on a mini stick? How do you point-mount them?

A: “We put them a small pointy piece of paper and then we write the species, where we found it, the date, and our names.”

Q: How many species of ants are there?

A: “Over 12,000. But, we found 20 species.”

Q: What is the purpose of identifying the species?

A: “We can see which species are present at which site and look at how they fare as they get closer to the city. Some species we see only in the city, some not at all, some only in the urban-rural areas, and sometimes strange spikes in the middle. We identify their patterns of presence and absence. We’re looking at species-richness, so the number of species at each site, and also the abundance or the amount of that species at each site.”

Q: What did you observe?

A: “My two hypotheses were that species richness decreases closer Chicago, and that ant abundance decreases closer to Chicago. Although we didn’t find a positive relationship between either of these predictions, we did find that different species occurred in different patterns along the transect.”

Q: What is the long-term goal of this research?

A: “The broader goal is to better conserve ant colonies so that they can continue to benefit our ecosystem.” 

Q: Have you ever worked in a lab environment like this before?

A: “I’d never truly worked in a science lab. As an environmental studies major, I was glad to get this opportunity in the sciences so I could see what that was like. Now that I’ve worked in a lab, I understand better that I do want to take more science classes.”

Q: What made you decide on your Environmental Studies major?

A: “Honestly, most people don’t have any idea what they want to do when they come into college. I decided to look at my lifestyle, what I cared about, what I looked at in my free time, and what I thought was interesting and important for the world. I realized a lot of that lined up with environmental studies. It’s a very transcendent thing because it’s the environment that we live in and people don’t think about that a lot.”

–By Tracy Koenn and Sophie Mucciaccio