February 2023 E Newsletter

the power of PLACE

An ode to superorganisms: ant colonies and field stations

An MBA might have been better preparation than a PhD for serving as RMBL’s Executive Director. But studying ants turns out to have been good job training.

For 5+ years I hiked up to Virginia Basin above Gothic and counted ants to understand what controls the sizes of colonies. When my friends call me Dr. Ian I clarify I can only consult on their health if they have six legs and two antenna (and nor do I have ants capable of sniffing cancer).

Counting ants is no small task. A study estimated the global population at 2.5 million ants for every human. You don’t become that common without evolving solutions to environmental challenges, such as dealing with mold. The HBO series Last of Us follows a fungal species that eats humans from the inside out and changes human behavior to maximize fungal transmission. Yucky.  Based upon a fungus that manipulates ant behavior, when you live in moist soil, fungi are not your friend. On the other hand, some ant species have coopted fungi! Just like humans use cows to convert inedible grass into steaks, leaf cutter ants use fungi to convert plants into the ant equivalent of McDonalds. Trillions served!

Ian Billick - Director RMBL

Ian Billick | PhD
Executive Director, RMBL


Dr. Jennie Reithel

The scientist's concierge

The life cycle of a research project begins with a question, something a scientist wants to know about the world. How do hummingbirds court? How do flower colors evolve? How are bumblebee populations changing? What are the tipping points in an ecosystem’s responses to climate change? And on and on.

Permission granted

The next question becomes: where do I do research? RMBL may come to mind. Many

scientists find out about this unusual field station in the Rockies by word of mouth. Or they’ve seen papers by RMBL researchers in scientific journals. So they reach out, draft a proposal, and submit a New Research Application to RMBL.

At RMBL, a Research Committee of peer scientists assesses the proposal, asking their own questions. Will the project be meaningful science? Is it feasible? Will it impact the environment? Will it hinder future research? All important considerations. It’s doubtful that a proposal for a mountainside forest clear-cut study or the permanent manipulation of a river will be approved. RMBL is here to facilitate future scientists as well as current ones.

After the assessment, the Research Committee recommends that RMBL staff approve, approve with conditions, or deny the application. An approved research plan is the scientist’s ticket to RMBL. Then the journey begins.