Do microbial mutualisms explain habitat specialisation in ants?

Theme: Biodiversity, Ecology & Conservation

Primary Supervisor:

Lee Henry

School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences, QMUL

Lee Henry's Profile Picture

Secondary Supervisor:

Yannick Wurm

School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, QMUL

Yannick Wurm's Profile Picture

Project Description:


Ants are among the most ecologically dominant organisms on earth. What is the secret their success?

It has been suggested that forming symbioses with nutrient-supplementing microbes may have contributed to their success, by allowing ants to invade otherwise inaccessible niches. For example, symbiosis with microbes that provide nutrients may have allowed ants to form specialized ant plant relationships (Myrmecophytes) and become specialist predators such as army ants.

However, it is currently unclear whether ants have repeatedly evolved symbioses that have allowed them to colonise and diversify in new ecological niches. In this PhD project, you will test the key hypothesis that symbioses have been are a major drivers of ecological success and diversification in ants, by enabling specialization and radiation into new ecological niches.

This project is suitable for students who wish to do field work on ants in the tropics (e.g. Fiji), as well as detailed mechanistic studies using a combination of experiments, and genomic investigations on lab cultured species.

This project has components that are more focused on ecology and behaviour, and those on genomics and evolution, or a combination of both. Students are encouraged to select a pathway that suits their current and future research plans.

*Students are also encouraged to develop their own ideas

Contact Dr. Henry directly to discuss details of the project.


Field based experiments

Experimental manipulations

Molecular evolution

Comparative genomics



Statistics (e.g. comparative phylogenetics)

**Technical skills developed will depend on the interests of the student

Policy Impact of Research:

It is crucial to understand the mechanisms that lead to the success of organisms, as it influences diversification and invasiveness. This project will help determine the role of symbionts in the spread and dominance of ants. It will also provide insight to the genomic basis of symbiosis that allowed organisms to colonise the planet.

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