Responses of ant assemblages to long-term grassland management
Antonio Pérez-Sánchez is a 35-year-old researcher from Venezuela. Currently, he is a PhD student at the Thünen Institute of Biodiversity under the supervision of Jens Dauber, with doctoral funding provided by a scholarship of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). His research focuses on how ant assemblages respond to changing management practices in permanent grasslands of Central Germany. His scientific interests include entomology, community ecology, and biodiversity conservation. In this interview, we talk about his paper “Differential responses of ant assemblages (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) to long-term grassland management in Central Germany” (Pérez-Sánchez et al. 2018) published recently in the journal Myrmecological News.
An Interview compiled by Alice Laciny
MNB: We are here to talk about your latest paper on grassland management, published in Myrmecological News. To start, tell us a little bit about yourself.
APS: My name is Antonio Pérez-Sánchez; I am from Venezuela. I am a biologist and entomologist with a particular interest in ants, the whole field of myrmecology and ecology. And now I am in Germany doing my PhD.
MNB: And this paper is part of your PhD?
APS: Yes, this is the first research topic of my thesis.
MNB: Very nice! So how and why did you go to Germany?
APS: The German Academic Exchange Service offered scholarships, and I approached my supervisor Jens Dauber who is also the senior author of the paper. He thought it would be a great opportunity to come here and have an international experience.
MNB: OK, then let’s talk about the work itself – can you please explain in simple terms what this paper was about?
APS: This research was about the evaluation of the long-term management of grasslands. We wanted to evaluate the effect of that management on ants.
MNB: And what was the motivation behind starting this study?
APS: Despite all the work that my supervisors and previous researchers did, on how management overall impacts ants, there are still many gaps in information. There are still so many holes and things that are not clear. That would be the main motivation. The second motivation was that we had access to a very nice experimental design in terms of grasslands. So this paper was based on experimental grasslands that also allowed us to work under controlled conditions. It was a great opportunity – we had replicates and different places, so we could just go for it!
MNB: And while you were doing the study, were there any moments that stuck in your mind because they were so strange, special, or difficult?
APS: The main difficulty that I face here is the language. I came here as an international student, got a driver’s license here in Germany, and then I had to go to the field site. The whole thing was a bit frightening at the beginning, but in the end, it was great. And the other factor that was difficult to deal with was the weather. I was expecting more stable weather, but it was really unpredictable.
MNB: Yes, sure, when you work with insects, the weather can be very tricky. And were there any funny moments or anything weird that happened during field work?
APS: Well, I like to travel very early in the morning, and in some places, there is a lot of road work on the way to Thüringen, so you have to take very complicated roads. And once I had a situation with a person who was telling me I was going the wrong way. It was funny because I couldn’t talk to him in German, and he told me in German “Wonderful, you are not able to speak German, but you are allowed to drive here in Germany?”
MNB: And what was your favourite moment, the one you enjoyed most?
APS: Well, during fieldwork it was very nice that people showed a lot of interest in what we were doing there. They just saw a weird guy in the middle of nowhere looking at the floor, and they always asked very politely what we were doing there. And they always showed a lot of interest when I told them what we were trying to do. They asked where I was from and were always super nice! And the collaboration with the partners in Thüringen was also very nice.
MNB: If you had to tell someone in just one sentence – what’s the main message of this paper? What’s really important for people to take home from it?
APS: I would say that ant fauna is sensitive to grassland management.
MNB: And if you expand your answer a little bit – how or to which part of management is it sensitive?
APS: To this, the answer is not so straightforward – you cannot simply say “this is good” or “this is bad” in terms of management. The main result was that mulching practices are not good for ants. According to my experience, this has a negative effect on the ants.
MNB: So, if I read your paper correctly, management itself, for example, mowing the grass, is not in itself bad for the ants?
APS: Well, it depends. This is the reason we call it “differential responses” because we don’t have a straightforward response and it also depends on the local conditions. So, in warmer places, intensive management can have a negative effect on ant communities, but in wetter or colder places, it can even be favourable.
MNB: OK, so it’s not that simple.
APS: Right. I would just say that ants are sensitive to the grassland – and if you want to know more, just drink a coffee with me!
MNB: Sounds wonderful! So, do you have any advice for young myrmecologists, for people just starting their PhD or starting to work on a paper?
APS: Even if you try hard to control everything, you will still have a lot of improvisation in the field. So it’s a good idea to do a pilot sampling or gather previous experience in the field, and then you can be more confident of your work.
MNB: Sure, so it’s good to do a trial run before you start the real study.
APS: Yes, it’s important to see the whole thing, to get an idea where you’re working. And during a PhD, you have to do everything in a short time, so everything should be perfect when you go to the field.
MNB: And if you had to predict the future for your field of research, what do you see?
APS: If we are talking about management and ants, the future would be related to the research that many scientist are already doing on experimental grassland, with research on plants et cetera, and use that information or scenario (in the way we did) to evaluate the impact of the management on ants. And also to consider the heterogeneity of the grasslands because all the grasslands are different. So, we should take advantage of all the other research that is going on and relate it to our work with the ants.
MNB: Sure, so it’s always important to collaborate with other researchers. Very good! Is there anything else that’s important to you, that you would like to say about the paper or your work?
APS: I came from Venezuela, and I grew up in my country with ants, too. And it still amazes me how different things can be, even if you think you know how the system works – you go to another place, and it’s a completely different story! So being here and working with European ants helped me a lot to open my eyes a little bit more. So, my message would be “Don’t be afraid to be amazed or surprised by what you find in the field!”
MNB: Wow, very nice – also a great closing statement! Thank you very much for the interview!
Pérez-Sánchez, A.J., Zopf, D., Klimek, S. & Dauber, J. 2018: Differential responses of ant assemblages (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) to long-term grassland management in Central Germany. – Myrmecological News 27: 13-23.