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Published: December 30, 2011

Origin and rise of a giant: Phylogeography of the Neotropical bullet ant Paraponera clavata

Stephanie Ware, Research Assistant II, Integrative Research Center
2012 REU Intern Arista Tischner

ARISTA TISCHNER

Junior Biology major at University of Illinois at Chicago

REU Mentors: Dr. Corrie Moreau (Curator, Zoology, Insects) and Dr. Stefanie Kautz (Postdoctoral Researcher, Zoology, Insects)

Symposium Presentation Title: Origin and Rise of a Giant: Phylogeography of the Neotropical Bullet Ant Paraponera clavata

Symposium Presentation Abstract: Known for their powerful sting, the giant Neotropical bullet ant Paraponera clavata (Formicidae: Paraponerinae) is a conspicuous member of ecosystems in lowland tropical rainforests throughout Central and South America, ranging from Honduras in the north to Brazil and Bolivia in the south. This distribution range is much larger than is typical for ants of a single species. They are the last remaining species in the genus Paraponera, and the only species to the subfamily Paraponerinae. We aimed at analyzing large and small scale genetic patterns in bullet ants. Firstly, on a larger scale, we investigated the phylogeography of the species using the mitochondrial gene, cytochrome oxidase I (mtCOI). More specifically, we asked whether gene flow occurs between geographically well separated sites, or on the contrary, whether populations are genetically isolated leaving room for speciation events. Methods included DNA extraction, PCR, cycle sequencing, and sequence analysis. A central question of this research topic is where the giant bullet ant has its origin and in which direction it populated its current range. Based on a mtCOI sequences, we generated a phylogenetic tree inferred from 43 individuals, including three ponerine outgroup taxa. This revealed that bullet ants arose in the Brazilian Amazon and then spread outward into Peru, Ecuador, and eventually into the Central American countries of Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras. On the small scale, we investigated genetic colony structure including number of queens and number of mates per queen in a single population. To address this question, we developed microsatellite primers specific to bullet ants. So far, we were able to develop 18 primers variable for bullet ants of which 8 were variable within a single population. These primers will be used to screen 971 ants of 81 nests belonging to a single Costa Rican population.

Original Project Description: The Neotropical bullet ant Paraponera clavata has its name on account of its painful sting. It is said that being stung by a bullet ant feels like being shot by a bullet. This ant is a conspicuous component of lowland Neotropical rainforests. It has an extremely wide distribution ranging from Honduras in the north to Bolivia and Brazil in the south. We will use DNA sequence data (the mitochondrial gene cytochorme oxidase I, mtCOI) to study the genetic population structure and phylogeography of the bullet ant across its entire range in Central and Southern America. More specifically, we are asking whether gene flow occurs between geographically well separated sites or on the contrary, whether populations are genetically isolated leaving room for speciation events. A central question of this research topic is where the giant bullet ant has its origin and in which direction it populated its current range. We will also assess the time frame in which population of the Americas occurred using divergence estimates and fossil calibration, as well as several outgroup taxa. To pursue these topics, we will include ants from several populations throughout the entire distribution range in our studies and analyze data using standard techniques.

Research methods and techniques: Interns will receive training in DNA extraction, PCR, and sequencing in the Museum’s core genetics facility, the Pritzker Laboratory and the DNA Discovery Center. Moreover, interns will learn sequence data analyses and phylogeographic analyses methods.


Stephanie Ware

Stephanie Ware is currently a research assistant in the Division of Insects currently working with Dr. Petra Sierwald. She also works with Mary Hennen in the Division of Birds monitoring the Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) populations in Illinois.

Stephanie started volunteering at the Field Museum in 1998, working with Curator John Bates in the Bird Division. In 1999, John Bates hired her as a research assistant. After that project finished in 2007, she went to work for Carl Dick in the Division of Insects helping him to complete his work on the museum's Bat Fly collection. She spent a great deal of time generating images for the Bat Fly portion of the Diptera Taxonomy Database. When Carl left for University of Kentucky in 2009, she continued her imaging work in the Insect Division. In the intervening years, she has imaged hundreds specimens, mostly types, from the rove beetle (Staphylinidae), ant and myriapoda collections.

Stephanie began working with the Chicago Peregrine Program in 2006.  Initially, she monitored the Metropolitan Correctional Center nest in downtown Chicago.  Over time, her duties have expanded to include other nests in the metro region, emphasizing the identification of nesting adults.  In March of 2007, Stephanie created a group called Midwest Peregrine Falcons on the photo sharing website Flickr with the goal of providing a place for photographers across the country to submit their photographs of peregrine sightings in the Midwestern United States. She also has many of her own peregrine photos on Flickr as well.