Barcoding US Ants

Interested in gaining hands-on scientific experience and contributing to valuable ongoing research? Join us this summer for a unique opportunity working in the field and lab—collecting and processing ants. MBHI is partnering with the Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory DNA Learning Center on an exciting nationwide community science project, US Ants. The project aims to engage community members in the science of DNA barcoding, while identifying and mapping ant species throughout the United States.

Program Overview

US Ants is a collaborative effort, and participants will submit their findings to a larger, collective database that will help scientists map ant species across the US. Additionally, participants will publish their ant genome sequences to GenBank; in some cases, participants may be the first to publish novel sequences or even discover new species.

The program will consist of a 4-part series: 1 day in the field, 2 days in the lab, 1 day meeting virtually to discuss results. Adults with children are welcome. Suggested age is 13 and up due to more complex material on Lab Days. Registrants 15 and under must be accompanied by a participating adult. Cost is $50 per participant.

Class 1

Collect ants in the field while on a Bug Walk with Bug Wrangler Brenna at the Rock Creek Confluence.

Choose one field date:

  • Saturday, June 25th 10:00 AM – 1:00 PM
  • Saturday, July 16th 9:00 AM – 12:00 PM
  • Saturday, August 20th 10:00 AM – 1:00 PM

Field days are limited to 10, participants provide their own transportation.

Class 2

Learn how to identify ants using a dichotomous key

  • Saturday, September 17th 9:00 AM – 3:00 PM
  • Location: Montana Natural History Center 120 Hickory St .

Class 3

Learn how to extract DNA, perform PCR and gel electrophoresis

  • Saturday, September 24th 9:00 AM – 3:00 PM
  • Location: Montana Natural History Center 120 Hickory St .

Class 4

After our DNA samples have been isolated and amplified, they will be sent off for sequencing, which takes about three weeks. Once the sequencing requests have been returned, participants will meet virtually to analyze DNA sequences and identify species using the Basic Alignment Search Tool (BLAST) on DNA Subway.

  • Date TBD; virtual meeting

By the end of this project, participants will:

  • Gain practical experience in the field including learning how to take accurate field notes and how to collect ants (including hand collection, setting bait traps, pitfall traps, etc.).
  • Identify ants to the genus level.
  • Learn how to isolate and amplify DNA using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and analyze PCR products using gel electrophoresis.
  • Analyze DNA sequences and identify species using the Basic Local Alignment Search Tool (BLAST).
  • Use multiple sequence alignment and tree-building tools to analyze phylogenetic relationships.
  • Report findings and publish sequences to GenBank.

Why community science?

Community science is an effective way to engage amateur scientists in the scientific method, increase science literacy within the community, and foster an appreciation and understanding of local ecosystems. Participants are actively engaged in every step of the process: collection, identification, DNA extraction, PCR, Gel electrophoresis, and DNA analysis.

Why ants?

Ants are easy to find and collect, and easy to distinguish from other insects. According to the DNALC US Ants page: “Even though ants seem so familiar, we know relatively little about them. We don’t have detailed maps of where most ant species live or how they are reacting to global climate change or habitat destruction. Approximately half of the 900 species of ants in the U.S. do not have published DNA barcodes!”

Mapping ant species across the US will give scientists a better understanding of species’ health, overall decline and species’ migration in response to climate change and habitat destruction. 

What is DNA barcoding?

DNA barcoding is a method of identifying species based on a region of their genome. Each living organism has a unique genome that can be used to identify the organism the same way a UPC code is used to identify a product at a grocery store. 

There are many advantages to using DNA barcoding as opposed to classical taxonomy; those who are not trained in classic taxonomy are able to do it, species can be identified faster, and specimens do not need to be preserved in perfect condition or for long periods of time. Building maps based on DNA barcodes is an easier practice than professional identification; it lessens the chance for human error and everyone can do it!

Click here to register!