• Princeton University student's experience on fieldwork with UBD on mutualisms between ants and plants
Princeton University student's experience on fieldwork with UBD on mutualisms between ants and plants

Mutualisms between ants and plants have evolved independently several times around the world, notably in South America, Africa, and Borneo. In this mutualism, plants provide food bodies to feed the ants and structures called domatia to house the colony, and in return, ants defend the plants from herbivores by swarming and biting threats, animal and insect alike. While the African and South American systems have been extensively studied and modeled by ecologists around the world, the Bornean ant-plant mutualisms have only recently attracted the notice of the scientific community. However, most of what little studies that have been done in Borneo were studies of Macaranga and their ants, leaving many other mutualisms still unfamiliar and undiscovered.

This summer, I spent six weeks with UBD as a non-graduating student—three weeks in the Kuala Belalong Field Studies Centre and three weeks with the Faculty of Science—studying the mutualism between Camponotus ants and Korthalsia plants. This relationship is unique in that it is the only documented antpalm mutualism in the world. However, one study by David Edwards et. al in 2010 and various encyclopedic entries by explorers in the 1970s are all the literature that exists on Korthalsia. In fact, we do not even know what herbivores feed on Korthalsia! Therefore, I attempted to add to our small body of knowledge on these rattans by taking measurements of the trees, recording data on the aggressiveness of the ant mutualists, and setting up four camera traps to spot herbivores of the tree. At the end of the field study at KBFSC, I took six tree samples and took them back to the lab at UBD, where I counted the numbers of ants and leaves and saved specimens to export to the USA for identification.

This study was a collaboration between Dr. Faizah Hj Metali, who served as my adviser and supervisor at UBD, and Professor Simon A. Levin, George M. Moffett Professor of Biology, as well as Ms Cara Brook and Ms Jacqueline M. Leung, PhD candidates at Princeton University. Dr Faizah provided me with many resources, including research assistants, in my work. Aiman Hj Yusoff, a UBD final year student, accompanied me for a week in the field and actually spotted many Korthalsia that escaped the notice of both myself and the KBFSC field assistant. In the lab, two other BSc Biological Sciences students, Norain Hj Abas and Nurul Maz Juhairah Manjul, did the entire process of nutrient analysis of Korthalsia leaf samples under the supervision of Dr Faizah. Dr. Faizah also referred me to Mr Joffre Ahmad of the Brunei National Herbarium in Brunei Forestry Centre, who identified the three Korthalsia species in my study. Everyone I worked with at UBD and KBFSC was incredibly knowledgeable and willing to help.

In this coming year, I will be analyzing the data I collected this summer and writing it up for an undergraduate thesis. I plan to start with plotting my data points and searching for a possible correlation between ant aggressiveness and plant health. From there, I tentatively plan on applying modified virulence models to the ant-plant system, in which the plant serves as the host and the ant as the pathogen. I hope that my study of Korthalsia will bring greater scholarly attention not just to the Korthalsia ant-plant system, but also to the unique, understudied Bornean flora and fauna that one can explore at KBFSC.

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