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Partnerships for enhanced engagement in research (PEER) SCIENCE
Cycle 3 (2014 Deadline)

Biodiversity conservation and scientific capacity development in the Brazilian Amazon using ants as bioindicators and ecosystem health indicators

PI:  Rodrigo Feitosa (, Universidade Federal do Paraná (UFPR)
U.S. Partner: Kenneth G. Ross, University of Georgia, Athens
Project Dates: September 2014 to May 2018
3-188 Project Team
Dr. Rodrigo Feitosa and his PEER team. Photo courtesy of Dr. Feitosa
The Amazon is one the most biodiverse regions in the world, yet it is under threat from human encroachment and global climate change. Biodiversity research has focused mostly on vertebrates, paying less attention to other taxa that are arguably more important for ecosystem health and function, such as insects. This is especially true of ants, which are incredibly species-rich, ecologically diverse, and have the highest biomass of any animal in the Neotropics. Ants are key ecosystem engineers, contain many different guilds, and are often highly sensitive to environmental perturbation, which makes them ideal bioindicators. Using ecologically relevant bioindicators allows highly sensitive insight into rapid changes in habitat health and ecosystem function. Unfortunately, a taxonomic impediment limits their use, since many tropical species are undescribed or new to science, greatly slowing morphological species identification. This research study seeks to address this shortcoming by conducting an inventory of ant diversity using DNA sequence data. The collected samples will form the nucleus for a growing entomology collection at the Universidade Federal do Paraná (UFPR), which will be developed into an active research collection to support the study of systematics, biodiversity, and natural history of the ant fauna of the Amazon and Brazil.
Ants contain several important tropical agricultural pests and invasive species. The project will thus be important for Brazilian agriculture and food security as potential pest species will be identified. Assessment of ant biodiversity at various levels and assigning species to functional guilds will lay the baseline for continued monitoring of ecosystem health and biodiversity under climate change, and will help inform conservation decisions by allowing rapid and efficient appraisal of ecosystems. The development of cheap and rapid genetic identification tools is expected to have immediate and lasting impact on biodiversity assessment and conservation practices in the Amazon. Coupling genetic and species-level biodiversity assessments with ecological functional information will improve economic valuation and management impact of ecosystems. This will strengthen environmental governance and advance sustainable management of natural resources and biodiversity conservation in the face of environmental and global climate change. The use of genetic markers will allow in-depth understanding of pest and bioindicator population genetics and dynamics, which are important considerations when developing and applying control or conservation management plans. Additionally, the generation of high-throughput DNA barcoding and next-generation population genomic data will form the foundation for cutting-edge science, technology, and innovation in conservation genetics and bio control and will provide a long-term investment for the PI Dr. Feitosa to develop and train genomic capacity in Brazil. 

Summary of Recent Activities
During the last quarter of 2017, Dr. Feitosa and his group carried out the fifth and last field expedition on the project. The collection site was the Viruá National Park, Roraima state, in the northernmost portion of the Brazilian Amazon, near the border with Venezuela. They performed massive sampling in the two distinct landscape types of the park, the rainforest and the natural Amazonian savanna (known as “campinaranas”). They also had fruitful interactions with the leaders of local environmental agencies regarding the importance of scientific research for the conservation of natural areas using ants as models. Similar to the samples collected in previous expeditions, the materials from this one are serving as the basis for scientific training for young female students at the Universidade Federal do Paraná (UFPR). Team members presented several studies directly or indirectly related to this project at the Simpósio de Mirmecologia: an International Ant Meeting, the world’s largest scientific event focused on ant research, which was held at UFPR from October 23 to 27, 2017. In addition, Dr. Feitosa is proud to announce that on December 22, 2017, project PhD candidate Gabriela P. Camacho, successfully presented her thesis, becoming the first member of the research group to obtain the title of Doctor. PEER is also proud to congratulate Dr. Camacho on her achievements and wish her success in her future academic career.

This PEER project is scheduled to end as of May 28, 2018, so at this point the PI and his team are working to purchase one last piece of equipment (a powerful microscope), organize all the material collected during the project, and prepare an updated list of species collected. The material and equipment purchased will serve as the basis for studies on ant ecology, taxonomy, and evolution for many years after the end of the project and will be extremely important for the career development of the students in Dr. Feitosa’s lab. The team is testing different collection protocols and storage techniques that have the potential to be widely employed in ant surveys at a global scale. These collection protocols and survey results will also provide a foundation for the development of strategies for protecting endangered areas, which will be presented as proposals to various Brazilian environmental agencies at the end of the project. Also, the team’s proposed molecular protocol for DNA extraction and analysis for ants using ultra-conserved elements has the potential to provide interesting insights on ant evolution and much more broadly and will be made available publicly at the end of the project.

3-188 Digging for Ants3-188 Kids after Workshop
 The team collected numerous samples during their fourth field expedition in the summer of 2017.The team meets with local children following a scientific capacity building workshop with the primary school (photo courtesy of Dr. Feitosa).
PEER Cycle 3 Grant Recipients