Ants fall victim to climate change

A La Trobe researcher has warned current agricultural cropping methods, combined with climate change, could have disastrous effects on ecosystems across the world.

Over the past five years, La Trobe Associate Professor in ecology Heloise Gibb has led a team of more than 50 scientists across 1000 global localities investigating the effects of habitat disturbance and climate change on various species of ants.

The study has found some habitat disturbance – such as cropping – can knock out species in the same way as a temperature increase of 9 degrees would. In particular, species living in hot arid, climates are particularly at risk.

"What we've found is that we need to be particularly concerned about how we treat hot, arid environments because species there seem to be the most vulnerable," Professor Gibb said.

"In the same way, we also need to view environments that are set to become hotter and drier with climate change in the same way.

"We often look at climate change in isolation. But combined with other ways we damage the environment, the number of species we are likely to lose may be greater than previously predicted.

Ants play an important role in agriculture. Not only do they improve water infiltration and nutrient cycling by tunneling into the ground, they also help control pest species that can damage crops.

"Breaking up cropland with stretches of native vegetation would be one way to combat the issue," Professor Gibb said.

"It would help the environment but it would also help farmers by supporting helpful species."

The study found up to 50 per cent species loss in some areas due to cropping. Professor Gibb said, while the study was conducted purely on ants, the findings could be indicative of what would happen to other species in the same environments.

The work was funded by the Australian Research Council and was recently published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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