Interview with Nicholas J. Gotelli

Reading Time: 11 minutes

© Nicholas J. Gotelli

Nicholas James Gotelli is a community ecologist focusing on the organization of animal and plant communities. His diverse research interests comprise, for example, biogeography, demography and extinction, null models and species co-occurrence, and many more. Check out his website to get more information on his research topics. In 1985, he received his PhD with Dan Simberloff at Florida State University and is now a full professor at the University of Vermont. He also worked at the University of Oklahoma and at Harvard University. In this interview, we talk about his research career and his interests.


An Interview compiled by Patrick Krapf


MNB: Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

NJG: I started out my career as a marine biologist, and my dissertation work was on the ecology of gorgonians and compound ascidians in the Northern Gulf of Mexico. But my postdoctoral work was on parasite effects on cockroach behavior, and my very first faculty position was at the University of Oklahoma as a terrestrial animal ecologist. I began working on larval ant lions, and that is how I started working on ants, because of course, they were the prey of larval ant lions. In 1992, I moved to a faculty position up here at the University of Vermont and began collaboration with Aaron Ellison on pitcher plant ecology. One of our earliest discoveries is that the most common prey of the northern pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea) is the ant Myrmica lobifrons, which is a habitat specialist that lives in peatbogs. So my ant work continued as I switched from ant lions to pitcher plants.

I joined the editorial board of Myrmecological News in 2010 and mostly handle papers on ant ecology and biogeography. I have served on the boards of many ecological journals over the years and do a lot of editorial work (probably too much). Many of these are “high-volume” operations. For example, as an Associate Editor for Ecology, I make initial recommendations on all the papers that are submitted each week, which is usually 15 to 30 manuscripts.

But of all the journals I have worked for, Myrmecological News is my favorite! The editors (Florian Steiner, Birgit Schlick-Steiner, and Daniel Kronauer) do a really amazing job. They are “old school” in that they scrutinize and copy-edit every paper very carefully, so the published paper is very high quality. Unfortunately, many other journals no longer invest this kind of time in the editing and copy-editing, and it makes a big difference in the final product. The reviewers for Myrmecological News are real experts, and authors sometimes are called on the carpet for not being thorough enough in explaining how samples were collected and identified, what taxonomic authorities were cited and species nomenclature was used, and where voucher specimens were deposited. Reviewers for Myrmecological News also have limited patience for ecological jargon or overly complex statistical procedures. As a result, ecological papers that pass the reviewing checks of Myrmecological News are well-written, carefully analyzed, and based on high-quality data. Because of the high-quality editing and careful handling of each manuscript, the impact factor and stature of Myrmecological News continue to increase through time.


MNB: Could you tell us about your research?

NJG: The work that we are doing with ants right now is directed towards the understanding the impacts of climate change. With collaborators Rob Dunn, Aaron Ellison, Nate Sanders, Sara Helms-Cahan, and Bryan Ballif, we wrapped up a five-year warming experiment at two sites in eastern-North America (Harvard Forest and Duke Forest). In each of these sites, we have a series of open-top chambers that have been warmed several degrees above ambient temperature and have been heated continuously over a five-year period. And in those open top chambers, we have done pitfall trapping for ants and other invertebrates. We placed in each warming chamber a series of wooden nest boxes that ants readily colonize. We have been fitting Markov models of species replacement to the nest box data, and we have been able to see how the transition matrices will change in different temperatures. My recent PhD student (co-advised with Sara Helms Cahan) Andrew Nguyen is working on the expression of heat shock proteins in Aphaenogaster. He is establishing patterns of constitutive and facultative expression of heat shock proteins under different temperature regimes for populations of Aphaenogaster collected throughout eastern North America.

MNB: You also worked a lot with null models, right?

NJG: Yes, null models have been a big part oy my research since the 1980s. Those models originally were developed for the analysis of bird assemblages and figured very prominently in the debates between Dan Simberloff and Jared Diamond over the importance of competition in structuring communities. It has been very interesting to apply these models to understand assembly rules for ants. At least on the face of it, ants exhibit much more conspicuous interference competition than bird or mammal assemblages. Ants maintain territories, use chemical weaponry and signaling, and behavioral establish dominance hierarchies at baits. For these reasons, they are a great system for studying community assembly rules with null models.


MNB: What is your motivation for doing ant research now?

NJG: There are several reasons I like to work with ants. First, ants are excellent organisms for studying community structure. On the one hand, their colonies are often sessile, which means we can go back, find them again, and map out their spatial patterns. On the other hand, workers themselves are highly dynamic, and we have a lot of great behavioral assays and work that we can do with them. Second, ants are extremely important for ecosystem function, probably more so than most other macro-invertebrate groups. The challenge has been that they are so important and so ubiquitous that it’s hard to do the ideal experiment, which would be to remove all ant colonies from a large plot of one or two hectares, keep them out, and watch what happens to decomposition rates and other measures of ecosystem function. But that is almost impossible to do because they are such good dispersers and are ecologically successful in so many environments. So I like ants for those ecological reasons. But I also like them for their aesthetics—they are beautiful! It is a pleasure to just look at them under a dissecting scope, to admire their diversity, to get immersed in the details of their morphological structures, and to think about how such structures might have evolved and how they may be adaptive for ants. They are great!


MNB: What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome in ant research?

NJG: The biggest obstacle for me was learning how to identify ants. In my original work at Oklahoma, my graduate student Marc Albrecht was doing most of that. He made contact with the famous myrmecologist Jeannette Wheeler. She was retired at that time, but she gave us a lot of help with the initial identification of specimens. So, we knew the ant species in our site in Oklahoma, and that was sufficient for doing the work on ant lion ecology. But in 1997, my graduate student Amy Arnett surveyed antlion prey across a 2000 km geographic gradient through the Eastern United States. She would drive 40 or 50 km and set out for 48 hours 2 grids 25 pitfall traps. One grid was established in a patch of deciduous forest, and one grid was established in a nearby open field, which are two widespread habitats in eastern North America.  She came back the end of that field seasons with hundreds of pitfall traps and thousands of ants.

I spent my entire first sabbatical leave learning how to identify that material. It was extremely difficult in the beginning because I didn’t really know what I was doing. For example, I would take an ant specimen and float it in a petri dish with alcohol in it, which is how I used to identify marine invertebrates. It was impossible; I couldn’t see any of the morphological characters, and the specimens were floating by. Finally, someone showed me that I needed to place the specimens on a paper towel and dry them out before putting them under the scope!

Here in New England, everybody kept pointing me to Stefan Cover, who was a curator and an ant specialist at the Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. I wrote to Stefan and said: “I have this large ecological data set and need to identify all of these ants”. Stefan wrote back and said: “No, this is an impossible task; you have too much material, and I cannot do this for you”. And so I wrote back and I explained: “I don’t want you to identify this material. I want you to teach me so I can identify the specimens myself”. He said: “Alright, very well. Than you need to come down to the Museum of Comparative Zoology.” Which I did. And Stefan was a master teacher. I had huge notebooks where I would take handwritten notes describing all of the details that he showed me. He also gave me at the time one of the last remaining hard-bound copies of Creighton “Ants of North America”, which is still an important text for North American ants. It’s somewhat out of date now, but that was the only real text to work from. I also xeroxed a lot of obscure papers with taxonomic keys that Stefan provided. But really it was the notes from Stefan that helped me to finally learn how to identify ants. That training from Stefan eventually led to the collaboration with Aaron Ellison on The Field Guide To The Ants of New England. I was also lucky enough in the year 2001 to graduate from the very first ant course that was held at Portal Arizona. E.O. Wilson and Brian Fisher organized the course and all of the myrmecological superstars taught the class (e.g. Bill Mackay, Roy Snelling, Phil Ward, Mike Kaspari, Mark Deyrup, Jack Longino). And my classmates included now-famous myrmecologists like Joshua King, Corrie Moreau, Ulrich Mueller, and Jennifer Wernegreen. Quite a distinguished group!


MNB: During your research, what was the funniest moment?

NJG: Not the funniest but the most memorable moment was when I was a graduate student and had moved to north Florida from California. I was returning from field work on the Gulf Coast, and my Volkswagen Squareback broke down. I was on my hands and knees looking up under it, and I discovered I knelt in a fire ant nest. As a California native, that was my first encounter with fire ants and it’s one I will never forget (laughing).


MNB: Were there any scary or irritating moments?

NJG: Nothing scary or irritating, but one of the most spectacular adventures for me was a couple of years ago. I had a Brazilian graduate student Cristian Dambros who was studying termite communities, and I was able to visit him and go to the rainforest in Manaus. And while we were there, we saw a couple of Ponera ants raiding a termite nest. Those giant jet-black tropical Ponera are pretty scary. You don’t even want to get your hands close to because you can imagine what would happen. We watched them for 20 minutes raiding this termite colony; they killed hundreds of termite soldiers and piled up the corpses outside the nest entrance. That was pretty amazing.


MNB: Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in myrmecology?

NJG: Even as a young child, I was fascinated by biology. My parents knew I was going to be a biologist. I grew up on the California coast and started diving at age 13 because I really loved marine invertebrates. Also, our family would go tent camping for a couple of weeks every year at Lassen Volcanic National Park, which is one of the U.S. parks that is still not very crowded with visitors. So I grew up around nature, and I knew I was going to do something with biology. I was initially inspired by the old Jacques-Yves Cousteau nature series on marine life. But it was not until my junior and senior year of College, that I had classes from Frank Pitelka, Wayne Sousa, and especially Rob Colwell. From those instructors I realized that it actually was marine ecology I wanted to study. That was how I got started, but the job market being what it was, I ended up working on different things. I immediately discovered that terrestrial ecology was so much easier to do than marine ecology is. And my work on ant lions eventually led me to working on ants.


MNB: If you had not become a myrmecologist / entomologist, what else would you have liked to become?

NJG: I think seeing how biology has changed, I might have gone into computer programming. If I had been a little younger, I would have started that. I still think that is really interesting. I teach a class now here in Vermont about computational biology, which I enjoy a lot.


MNB: What is the one thing you wish everyone knew about ants?

NJG: That’s a hard question … I think it would be their social and genetic structure. And to recognize that an individual ant is more like a leaf on a tree. It’s not a separate, completely independent organism, even though that is all people see. And I wish I could take people underground so that they could see queen and most of her workers. What we see on the surface crawling around it is just a tiny fraction of the biomass that is there.


MNB: Do you have a favorite ant?

NJG: I really love the genus Myrmica. I think they are beautiful and fascinating, and their taxonomy and ecology, at least in North America, is still poorly studied. We have all of these species, and many of them are in Eastern forests, but some of them are in special habitats, like Myrmica lobifrons, which we only collect in bogs. The species up here are mostly differentiated by the flanges and ornamentation on their antennal bases. Is that a reliable taxonomic character? Are some of them separate species? I think most of them are, but it is still a big puzzle. What are their ecological roles? What are they doing for seed dispersal and how do they affect ecosystem function? I think that is an amazing group that is not well studied. I’d love to see some people work on that genus.


MNB: What are the main differences regarding research when you started as a myrmecologist compared to today?

NJG: I think the really big change in ecology has been the press now for more repeatable research and for access to data sets. The way we process and organize data and make it available is quite a bite different.


MNB: Do you have any suggestion for myrmecology-newbies?

NJG: The most important thing right in the beginning is to find someone who knows how to identify ants already. Get them to spend time teaching you things because you can’t really use the keys until you already have some knowledge. I think this kind of knowledge transferred by someone sitting at a dissecting scope with you and showing you. For anyone who is going to call themselves a community ecologist a minimal task that is that they should be able to identify their species! If you are going to work on groups or organisms, whether it’s ants or other animals, you need to invest time in being able to identify them. But it’s hard now, because again with the availability of so much data there are many people who are ecologists and build successful careers who may have never actually seen or touched the organisms in the field. They are just working with data files, and I think that is a serious disadvantage. I also think just working with the organisms and working in the field gives you intuition and insights into the interpretation of those macroecology datasets that would be impossible to have otherwise. It’s important at whatever level you are working with to stay connected to the field and to stay connected to the organisms.


MNB: What would you do differently if you could start all over again?

NJG: I would probably establish more long-term monitoring programs for all sorts of different taxa. I would try to sample over a little bit larger spatial scale. I wish I had learned ant identification much earlier on than I did in my career.


MNB: What questions are you asked most often when people hear you work with ants?

NJG: Oh, well, they usually want to tell me about some ant that are coming into their kitchen and how they can get rid of it and what can they do about it? But I try to explain to them that– compared to many other kinds of insects– it’s no problem having ants inside your house. They are clean, and they don’t carry human diseases. At least in this part of the U.S., they do not bite or sting. People are convinced that ants are eating their house apart, but of course if they actually have carpenter ants in their house, it means that they have damp wood, and the carpenter ants are taking advantage of that. So people should be grateful that the carpenter ants have arrived to warn them of a structural problem in their house.


MNB: How do you protect your kitchen against ants?

NJG: Oh, I don’t (laughing). Well, I try to keep the counters clean of food, that is the main thing. But ants always come in in the spring, because the house is so much warmer than the soil is in the first part of the year. So there is a big migration, especially Camponotus, which can set up little satellite colonies from the main nest., If you are patient, they will disappear on their own. Any chemicals that you might use to get rid of the ants will be far more dangerous for you than they will be for the ants. And having them in the house makes the kitchen counter look like an Escher print— and I like that (laughing)!


MNB: What’s the book on your bedside table?

NJG: Philip Roth’s “The Human Stain.” (Editor’s note: Roth passed away on 22 May 2018, shortly after this interview)


MNB: Watching sports or doing sports?

NJG: Doing sports.


MNB: Evening or morning?

NJG: Morning.


MNB: Tea or coffee?

NJG: Espresso.


MNB: Sugar or sweetener?

NJG: Sugar.


MNB: Aspirator or forceps?

NJG: Fingers.


MNB: Nest densities or pitfall traps?

NJG: Pitfall traps.


MNB: Field or lab?

NJG: Field.


MNB: Pin or ethanol?

NJG: Ethanol.


MNB: Paper reprint or pdf?

NJG: pdf.


MNB: Kin selection or group selection?

NJG: Kin selection.


MNB: Monodomy or supercoloniality?

NJG: Supercoloniality.


MNB: Worker or queen?

NJG: Worker.


MNB: Thank you again, Dr. Gotelli, for the nice interview.

NJG: Thank you, all the best.

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