Congratulations to Melinda Greenfield (JCU), who has won the 2015 Wiley Fundamental Ecology Award for her project "Interactions between a plant, ants and fungi in the ant-plant Myrmecodia beccarii."
Melinda will receive a research grant of $5000 and will present her research at ESA16 in Fremantle, Western Australia.
Congratulations also go to David Vaughan (also from JCU) for his project "Investigating unexplored ecological aspects of cleaner shrimp" and Rebecca Wheatley (UQ) for her project “Predation games: predicting how fast an animal should run to evade a predator or capture prey” which both received highly commended awards.
Thank you to Dr Jodi Price for co-ordinating the assessment panel, and thank you to our award partners Wiley for their ongoing support of Ecological research.
More about Melinda's project:
Project Title: Interactions between a plant, ants and fungi in the ant-plant Myrmecodia beccarii
Myrmecophytes (“ant-plants”) are plants that provide ants with nesting space in hollow modified structures called domatia. The symbiotic ants usually defend the plant against herbivores, pathogens and encroaching vegetation. The Australian species Myrmecodia beccarii is an endemic epiphytic ant-plant found in Melaleuca forests and mangroves of far north Queensland, from Townsville to the Iron Range National Park. The domatia of M. beccarii is a tuber which contains a network of tunnels and chambers commonly occupied by the native ant Philidris cordata. There are two types of chambers inside M. beccarii domatia: one with light-brown walls where P. cordata usually keeps its larvae and pupae, and the other with dark-brown walls where ants deposit waste and defecate. Over 30 years ago, two taxa of fungi were discovered in these different domatia chambers of M. beccarii plants in Cairns but their identity and functional roles were not determined. It was suggested that ants might eat these fungi or that fungi may break down organic material and as such play an important role in nutrient cycling for the plant. There has been no further study of fungi in ant-plants in Australia leaving questions about the identity of the fungi, the roles of these fungi, the nature of the interactions between ants, plants and fungi, and the mechanisms of fungal dispersal between plants.
The aims of my PhD project are to explore the interactions between fungi, ants and the ant-plant M. beccarii to establish if a tripartite mutualism exists and the possibility that ants are farming fungi. I am going to conduct a survey to determine: (a) what species of fungi exist within this ant-plant; (b) whether fungal diversity varies across the distribution of this ant-plant; (c) if fungal species are partitioned in different domatia chambers; and (d) if fungal species vary depending on resident ant species. I am also going to carry out ant-exclusion experiments in the greenhouse and field to investigate: (a) if ants disperse fungi between mature M. beccarii plants and seedlings; (b) if seedling establishment/growth is affected by the presence or absence of certain fungi; (c) if ants transport fungi indirectly on their exoskeleton; and (d) if adult ants and/or larvae eat and disperse fungi directly. I am going to use traditional fungal culturing methods and a combination of morphological and molecular techniques to identify the fungal species that I find during my survey and greenhouse/field experiments.
My research will significantly advance our understanding of ant-plant interactions and the fundamental ecology of mutualisms including: 1) the roles of fungal symbionts in ant-plant mutualisms which are poorly understood; 2) how ant-plants in Australia may represent another case of fungiculture practiced by ants; and 3) how ant-plant mutualisms have evolved and are maintained.
Left: M beccarii on Melaleuca tree
Right: Ant-plant showing light and dark chambers