My main study organisms are in a particularly fascinating group of ants: trap-jaw ants in the genus Odontomachus. These bizarre-looking ants are relatively large (ca. 1 cm), possess a powerful sting and have evolved a special trap-jaw mechanism which they use not only for catching small arthropods like springtails and termites, but also for jumping to escape threats (see Spagna et al. 2009). The mandible strike of Odontomachus is the fastest recorded motion in the animal kingdom with a speed of over 60 meters per second (216 kmh, 134mph) (Odontomachus bauri, see Patek et al. 2006).
I study trap-jaw ants in the United States (see Trap-jaw ants on Florida’s sand ridges) but also in tropical places like Borneo (see Jumping trap-jaw ants in Borneo), Costa Rica, and the Philippines. The main focus of my trap-jaw ant research is to gain a better understanding of their population genetics, phylogenetics, and phylogeography however I am also interested in their behavior and natural history.
Additionally, I am also working on a project on intraspecific variation in ants along altitudinal gradients in Borneo (see Divergence along an elevational gradient in Borneo) and a project on behavioral studies on an ant species that lives in and around Ethiopia’s threatened church forests (see Ethiopia: A new ant supercolony?).
More generally, I am interested in broad-scale geographic patterns in functionally relevant and conspicuous ant traits, be they physiological (thermal tolerance), morphological (trap-jaws, spines, color), or behavioral (drumming, jumping).
Spagna JC, Schelkopf A, Carrillo T & Suarez AV. (2009) Evidence of behavioral co-option from context-dependent variation in mandible use in trap-jaw ants (Odontomachus spp.). Naturwissenschaften 96(2): 243-250.
Patek SN, Baio JE, Fisher BL & Suarez AV. (2006): Multifunctionality and mechanical origins: Ballistic jaw propulsion in trap‐jaw ants. PNAS USA 103: 12787-12792.