Ant biodiversity responses to climate change and disturbance

Ants are being used on the North Australian Tropical Transect to investigate biodiversity responses to climate change and disturbance.

The Challenge

Ants dominate Australian savannas

Ants are the dominant faunal group in Australian savannas, typically representing more than 20 per cent of total faunal biomass. They play key roles in relation to nutrient cycling, energy flow, and vegetation dynamics. However, we have a very limited understanding of how ant abundance and diversity varies in relation to climate and disturbance.

Our Response

Investigating biodiversity responses to climate change and disturbance

Ants such as this seed-harvesting species of Meranoplus are being used on the NATT to investigate biodiversity responses to climate change and disturbance.

Ants are being used to investigate patterns of species distribution along the North Australian Tropical Transect (NATT) and their responses to disturbance. Species distribution models have been developed for very many savanna ant species, and are being used to explore responses to climate change.

A major study of the effects of grazing on ant communities has been established, using a range of pastoral stations along the NATT. The savanna ant fauna in Australia has evolved in association with arid habitats, and therefore is dominated by arid-adapted elements.

The Results

Ants are highly resilient but face range reductions

Australia's savanna ant communities are exceptionally rich (typically more than 100 species per hectare), and such diversity is maintained along the NATT rainfall gradient. Patterns of ant species turnover are consistent with previously recognized biogeographic boundaries, with a primary disjunction between the arid and monsoonal zones in the south, and a secondary disjunction between the semi-arid and mesic zones in the north.

The ant communities are highly resilient in relation to grazing. This reflects the arid-zone origins of Australia's savanna ant fauna, which makes it well-adapted to the open habitats created by disturbance.

Modelling indicates that ant species are likely to be highly responsive to future climate change. It is predicted that a quarter of all species will have drastic range reductions, and could potentially face local extinction due to loss of suitable habitat over coming decades. Western Australia's Kimberley region appears to be especially susceptible to local extinctions.

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