My research examines the dynamics of complex species interactions and how they are shaped by managed systems. Within the last 100 years, most theoretical and empirical research has examined populations, communities and ecosystems by identifying and studying individual components in isolation from the complicating influence of a larger system. However, recent work has illustrated the importance of studying species interactions beyond a pair-wise context. To address this gap in our knowledge, I examine how the underlying mechanisms and drivers of species interactions can reveal the context dependency of these interactions in nature. Ants are an excellent model for studying complex species interactions. They dominate most terrestrial habitats in terms of abundance, biomass, and energy turnover. They frequently live in large colonies that provide well-protected and resource-rich environments. Furthermore, ants have complex communication systems. For these reasons, organisms at a range of trophic levels seek close associations with ants to access protection or resources. Ants also provide important ecosystem services. Ants are voracious predators and frequently act as biological controls in agroecosystems, by defending plants against herbivores. Thus, understanding the dynamics of species interactions involving ants in agroecosystems can have important real-world management implications.
I use an integrated approach, combining observational studies, manipulative field experiments, chemical ecology techniques, and lab experiments to examine the dynamics of complex species interactions and how they both shape and are shaped by managed systems. There are three major components of my research program: I examine how: (1) chemical communication plays a role in complex species interactions, (2) species interactions shape mutualisms in a broader ecological network, and (3) land management shapes complex species interactions.