From the summer of 2014 up until spring of 2016, Drexel University graduate student Kaitlin Baudier studied the ways in which army ants use their body heat to create nests. These nests, called bivouacs, are used by the ants to maintain a certain temperature that ensures that the ants can remain mobile and aid in the survival of their offspring.
Although previous research had been done on bivouacs above ground and at low elevations, there was not much research on those below the ground at high elevations. Baudier, with the help of Sean O’Donnell from the Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science, discovered that the underground army ants were actually able to thermoregulate much better than expected.
“We were in the field and started noticing that we kept seeing these weird, cleared soiled mounds in the forest at this high elevation. Once we saw it several more times, we knew that this is a pattern and that these ants are behaving a little differently at a high elevation than descriptions of their nests at low elevations. So then we got curious and started to think of field problems and questions we could tackle with that,” Baudier said.
She took the temperature of the bivouacs and when she dug them up, she was able to do further analyses.
“We found that there were different colony members at different depths within the bivouac, which was interesting,” she said.
“And there are different temperature experiences happening at those different depths as well. So we were able to map who was where with what temperatures they experienced,” Baudier continued.
Although she is now well-versed about the behavior of army ants, Baudier did not intend to follow this path with her research. She became interested in ants when she was an undergraduate student at Louisiana State University. While there, she worked in a lab and helped count ants. When she gained that exposure, she progressively became more interested in ants and the ways in which they can be used as a model for other biodiversity research.
Baudier is making significant contributions to the scientific community, which is much to her surprise.
“This wasn’t originally something that I had aimed to be able to find, something novel that was different than previous description. But it definitely falls nicely into place with what my thesis work is,” she explained.
Baudier’s thesis concentrates on the thermal tolerances of ants, and of all insects. She focuses on the ability of colonies of insects to thermoregulate their nests through modifications in order to optimize conditions for their offspring.