Researcher to analyse buffel grass effect on desert ants 

Honours student Sarah Bonney … analysing the effect buffel grass is having on Central Australian ants. Photo: Patrick Nelson

Ants in Central Australia will come under the microscope as part of a scientific research project that will begin at Charles Darwin University this month.

Researcher Sarah Bonney will investigate the effect that buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris) is having on various species of ants.

The Honours student will gather evidence from sites in the West MacDonnell Ranges and from private properties near Alice Springs that represent a variety of environmental conditions.

Ms Bonney said buffel grass had transformed the arid ecosystem from a highly variable open landscape to a homogenised and dense landscape since its introduction as a pastoral grass in the 1920s.

“We know from previous research that buffel grass can change the habitat structure and availability of resources, and that it changes the fire regime,” she said.

“We also know that its presence has had a negative impact on birds, reptiles and invertebrate fauna.”

Ms Bonney said ants were powerful indicators of disturbance in the Australian arid environment.

“I expect to find an increased abundance of some species but a reduction in others,” she said.

“If the ground temperature in areas of dense buffel cover is lower, we may find fewer thermophilic (heat loving) species.

“But the abundance of generalised ant species may be higher.

“We may find some species have taken advantage of a possible new food source in a habitat with fewer competitors.”

Ms Bonney said she had always been fascinated by the world of ants.

“I’ve tracked bears in the Andes and restored vegetation in the Galapagos Islands, but it was when I was in the Amazon among a vast array of weird insect fauna, that I realised I wanted to focus my career on ants.”

Ms Bonney said she was equally intrigued by their behaviour and their physiology.
“Some have large spikes, some look like pin cushions, some smell like male urinals,” she said.

“The aim of this project is to contribute to current knowledge of ant community response to buffel grass invasion.”