Research Project | 2024

Determining the drivers of collective behavior in Veromessor harvester ants at the UC Sedgwick natural reserve 


Awardee: Sean O’Fallon

Sean O’Fallon is a Ph.D. student in the Pinter-Wollman lab at UCLA. His research focuses on the collective behavior of ant colonies, focusing on the factors that determine behavioral variation within populations and the relationship between ant nest architecture and collective behavior. His previous projects have investigated the factors that determine the development of nest structures in harvester ants and the evolutionary history of nest architecture across ground-nesting ant species. He aims to understand how collective behavior is shaped by environmental, spatial, and system-specific properties in animal groups, and how collective outcomes impact ecosystems.

Veromessor andrei harvester ants are important predators and dispersers of seeds in California’s grassland ecosystems. Many of the mechanisms underlying collective foraging behavior in harvester ants have previously been described, but the sources of behavioral variation among colonies is still unknown. Through observations and experimental manipulations in the field at Sedgwick Natural Reserve, this project will identify the extent to which intrinsic and environmental factors contribute to variation in foraging behavior. Understanding the factors that drive collective behavior in harvester ant foraging will inform our understanding of how climate change and other anthropogenic effects will impact California’s ecosystems.