Interview with Social Insect Scientists: The head team of ‘Ants of Brazil’: Fernando Schmidt, Carla Ribas and Rodrigo Feitosa

The first scientific work coming out from the ‘Ants of Brazil’ initiative was recently published in Insectes Sociaux (‘Ant diversity studies in Brazil: an overview of the myrmecological research in a megadiverse country’) here.

IS: Who are you, and what do you do?

Ants of Brazil – AB: We are a workgroup of 38 Brazilian ant researchers that aim to provide a base line for the improvement of Brazilian myrmecological studies for the international scientific community. The head team is made up by Fernando Schmidt, Carla Ribas and Rodrigo Feitosa, who have been good friends since 2005 and currently have professorship positions at Federal University of Acre (in Northern Brazil), Federal University of Lavras (in South-eastern Brazil) and Federal University of Paraná (in Southern Brazil), respectively. In 2012, inspired by several international initiatives in Myrmecology, we created the Ant of Brazil workgroup that has three basic action lines:  teaching, research, and science communication, by disseminating knowledge on ant diversity and related studies.

Regarding the teaching line, we have offered 8 day-courses every two years on ant systematics, taxonomy and ecology which always take place in one of the six Brazilian official biomes (Amazon Forest, Atlantic Forest, Caatinga, Cerrado, Pampa, and Pantanal). In the research line, we have a big data base on published ant diversity papers with the aim to provide scientometric and conceptual synthesis and meta-analyses on diversity patterns of ants in the Brazilian territory, of which our paper Schmidt et al. (2022) in Insectes Sociaux is the first one published. Finally, as an initiative in science communication, we support a group in Facebook (Formigas do Brasil) where ant people can disseminate their projects and papers, ask help for ant identification and material processing. Currently, the group has more than 1,500 members.

Part of the ant researchers that make up the Ants of Brazil workgroup at Simpósio de Mirmecologia: An international ant meeting in 2013 in Fortaleza, Northeastern Brazil.

IS: How did you develop an interest in your research?

AB: We have worked in  several comprehensive papers on Brazilian ants by a scientometric approach, such as the profile of ant diversity studies developed in Brazil (Schmidt et al. 2022), the diversity and occurrence of ant taxa in the Brazilian biomes (Feitosa et al. under revision), the use of taxonomic tools to validate ant identification in Brazil (Feitosa et al. under revision) and conceptual synthesis and meta-analyses on diversity patterns of ants in the Brazilian territory, testing the effect of seasonality (Queiroz et al. under revision), soil use, resource and conditions and interactions (manuscripts in preparation).  

IS: What is your favorite social insect, and why?

Fernando: My primary interest in ants is their use as a model in diversity patterns and bioindication research. However, my favourite genus is Odontomachus.

Carla: Oh! In the beginning I just used ants as a model to do ecology research, but since I discovered more and more about ants, I really love these amazing insects! Now I like them so much, that I marked them on my body for life! I have a tattoo (actually of seven ants!) on my right arm, it is my favourite genus, Cephalotes.

Rodrigo: Ants, of course! No social insect group exhibit such a diversity of ecological and behavioral strategies. Not to mention the fantastic morphological diversity. Among ants, my favorite is certainly the genus Daceton from the Amazonian lowlands of South America. Wonderful spiny, arboreal, trap-jaw ants.

IS: What is the best moment/discovery in your research so far? What made it so memorable?

Fernando: It was the publication of the main manuscript of my Doctorate project, which is about ant diversity patterns in tropical rainforest and savannas in Brazil and Indonesia, which besides the nice paper (Schmidt et al. 2017) also allowed me to travel to wonderful tropical places. Additionally, the first paper from our data base published in Insectes Sociaux is also a remarkable match in my career.

Carla: This is a difficult question because I really love my research with ants. Specifically, I like the field samplings a lot, when I can see ants working and it allows me to discover wonderful places in Brazil. During my doctorate I studied the latitudinal gradient of ants, travelling from the North to the South of Brazil. This is really great, to see the ants in all their biomes! I also think that it is amazing to listen to people talking about their popular knowledge about ants. This is, for now, one of the best moments in my career, when I started to exchange knowledge about ants with non-academic people!

Rodrigo: Probably the first record of worker transportation performed by queens in the little fire ant Wasmannia auropunctata. Fantastic behavior that I observed in the semidecidual forests of central Brazil, published in 2007 in Insectes Sociaux. I also love each record of rarely collected ants during my field trips in the Brazilian forests.

The head team of Ants of Brazil in a lovely scene: Carla Ribas, Fernando Schmidt and Rodrigo Feitosa.

IS: Do you teach or do outreach/science communication? How do you incorporate your research into these areas?

Fernando: I teach and have incorporated the results of my research and ant colleagues in my teaching class. (IS: also, check out Fernando’s instagram: @ecoformiga)

Carla: Yes! I do both! I disseminate my research about ants in the different subjects that I teach, as well as by social media of my lab (instagram: @lef_ufla) and in interviews about the articles, such as this for the Insectes Sociaux blog. More recently, as I already mentioned, I love to exchange knowledge about ants in ethnomyrmecology research and in schools in Lavras.

Rodrigo: We do science communication by the social media channel of my lab (instagram: @Feitosalab), where we share the results of our projects and publications in a non-academic language to reach people from all the social classes and backgrounds. We also promote activities involving primary schools in our town, Curitiba.

IS: What do you think are some of the important current questions in social insect research, and what’s essential for future research?

AB: We would like to encourage colleagues to collaborate and form workgroups such as Ants of Brazil in their countries or regions, which can allow a comprehensive view of studies on ant diversity at a global scale. Moreover, in at least one of our papers we also provide examples of inter-institutional workgroups and highlight their importance to improve the sampling cover and knowledge on ant diversity in tropical regions like Brazil. We also should invest additional effort in studies about ant natural history, as this area is the very basis of almost everything we do in myrmecology. Additionally, a rich field of research is ant socio-biodiversity, where we can share knowledge with non-academic partners, learning from them about ants and disseminating our research and knowledge of ants in general.

Last edition (2018) of the Ants of Brazil course in the Atlantic forest of Santa Tereza, Southeastern Brazil.

IS: What research questions generate the biggest debate in social insect research at the moment?

AB: Probably the different and sometimes divergent methods to infer evolutionary relationships and diversification rates in most groups of social insects, ants included. In ecology, we think that discovering ecosystem functions that ants perform, functional diversity patterns and how we affect it, becomes a central issue.

IS: What is the last book you read? Would you recommend it? Why or why not?

Fernando: ‘Letters to a young scientist’ by Edward O. Wilson. Wilson offers nice advice to not only young scientists, but for scientists of all ages.  Wilson brilliantly approaches several stages of the scientific method and scientific life using inspired personal examples. I super recommend this book to everyone who wishes to become a scientist or already is one. Books from Wilson do not need justification, just read them!

Carla: Sapiens – Uma Breve História da Humanidade by Yuval Harari. Besides telling the biological story of Homo sapiens, it also links it to the history of the world. It is fantastic!

Rodrigo: O Sábio e a Floresta by Moacir Werneck De Castro. A biography of the German naturalist Fritz Müller (1821-1897) who emigrated to southern Brazil and helped to promote Darwinism based on his observations on the natural history of the organisms that inhabited the Brazilian Atlantic Forest. A must read for every nature lover, biologist or not.

IS: Outside of science, what are your favorite activities, hobbies, or sports?

Fernando: I like to play with my children and to work in the garden.

Carla: Meeting with friends for a nice talk and drink beer is very good to free the mind from routine and also helps to have new ideas about ants, when your friends are also ant researchers, like Fernando and Rodrigo! In these (hopefully past) pandemic times, I watched movies and played with my child, besides staying in contact with nature and going on walks, since I used to live in a rural area.

Rodrigo: I’m a beer enthusiast! I enjoy both drinking and studying the history of beer and its different styles. I like to fish too!

Students of our course sampling litter ants with a Winkler shifter in 2016 in Rio Branco, Amazon forest, Northern Brazil.

IS: How do you keep going when things get tough?

AB: Our last paper published in Insectes Sociux is good example of dedication, persistence and a lot of patience to overcome the direct and indirect drawbacks related to a paper publication such as planning the study aims, sampling/carrying out experiments, data analyses and writing. Besides the difficulties in these common steps of a scientific paper, in our study we also had to deal with the coordination of a big group of people with different expectations and points of view. However, the Brazilian myrmecological community is very friendly and collaborative which was essential to carrying out the work smoothly and patiently along the 10 years spent on the study. Specifically, for us in the head team, parallel to the big job that this paper requested, we also experienced along these 10 years notable marks in our professional and personal lives such as professorship positions, the first student project to supervise, child births, administrative positions, and everything else that takes our time to work on the paper. Thus, besides huge dedication, high levels of persistence and patience were necessary to achieve the final results, which we wish to celebrate in an appropriated way when we meet again.

IS: If you were to go live on an uninhabited island and could only bring three things, what would you bring? Why?

Fernando: Essential things to survive: entomological stuff to sample ants, a computer for paper writing and data analyses, food and beer to have meals and fun.

Carla: Beer (relax and fun), books (knowledge and fun) and paper to write down new ideas.

Rodrigo: Beer, a fishing rod, and a good book collection.

IS: Who do you think has had the most considerable influence on your science career?

Fernando: My advisors and professors and for the papers, mainly the review ones from Alan Andersen, and the seminal paper of Andrés Baselga on beta diversity partitioning, which I have worked on since my doctorate.

Carla: My advisor, José H. Schoereder, who studies ant ecology and gave me inspiration not just as an excellent researcher, but as an incredible human being. My graduate friends for life that also studied ant ecology – Renata Campos and Tathiana Sobrinho, and these two lovely friends that have been sharing amazing experiences and life time with me – Fernando and Rodrigo. But I really think that the influence in my career comes from every partner that I shared knowledge about ants with, from these cited above, my advised students, and non-academic people. All these people together are my influence!

Rodrigo: My advisor, Beto Brandão, the incredible ant taxonomist Barry Bolton and, for sure, Edward O. Wilson.

Students working on ant sorting, mounting and identification in the laboratory of our course in 2018 in the Atlantic forest of Santa Tereza, Southeastern Brazil.

IS: What advice would you give to someone hoping to be a social insect researcher in the future?

AB: Regarding ant diversity and ecology, many patterns have been described and the responses of ant communities to natural or human-induced disturbances are becoming more predictable; however, the mechanisms behind these patterns are still very little investigated. To explore the drivers and processes related to ant assemblage structure, big data bases, such as the one provided by ‘Ants of Brazil‘ and several others, would be essential, with which a lot of elegant studies on the mechanisms behind ant diversity patterns could be done even without additional ant sampling. And do not forget that people are as important as ants in our research! Exchange knowledge with them!

IS: What is your favorite place science has taken you?

Fernando: During my doctorate, I had the opportunity to do an internship for one year in Germany in the Agroecology group of Prof. Teja Tscharntke – University of Göttingen. Beside the fruitful scientific time, my wife (who is a scientist too) and I had the opportunity to travel to several countries around the world.

Carla: During my doctorate I travelled from the South to the North of Brazil to sample ants. This was fantastic!

Rodrigo: The Brazilian savanna (Cerrado). What a magic ecosystem!