Evolutionary Games of Ants: unmasking the rules of biological invasions
Mentor: Senay Yitbarek
Biological invasions ranging from infectious diseases to newly introduced species constitute one of the major ecological challenges of our time. While numerous theoretical and empirical investigations have assessed the potential consequences of biological invasions on ecological communities, we continue to lack a unifying framework that provides us with an understanding as to why and how some communities are invaded. Our research focuses on the tropical little fire ant Wasmannia auropunctata which is considered to be a major agricultural pest on tropical islands where it is not native and as a consequence negatively impacts the invertebrate community. W. auropunctata is commonly found throughout the Neotropics where its impact on the native ant fauna varies widely. The main goal of our research program is to discover why W. auropunctata acts as an agricultural pest on shaded coffee farms of Puerto Rico while the same species does not appear to severely impact the native ant fauna of shaded coffee farms in Mexico. Our approach seeks to integrate evolutionary game-theory in combinations with network theory and dynamical systems in order to discover the underlying rules that give rise to biological invasions. An REU student would seek to answer these and other questions using computational modeling of spatial interactions, experimental testing of spatial games, collective exploration of ants, and development of game-theoretic approaches to biological questions. This work would be done on coffee farms in Mexico and Puerto Rico.