Research in the Lucky lab addresses fundamental questions about insect biodiversity and evolution, often with a focus on invasive species. We use public participatory science as a tool to answer these questions and help connect all audiences to insects, as well as to science, in general. Our research revolves around three main themes: 1) evolution and biodiversity 2) invasion and 2) science communication.

Ant evolution & biodiversity

Research in the Lucky Lab takes advantage of ants’ marvelous diversity to investigate evolutionary history, evaluate invasive potential, and assess conservation importance. We use molecular phylogenetics techniques and classical morphological approaches to better understand the context of diversification, then use this information to improve practical tools, such as identification keys.

Systematics and biogeography of ants

Robust phylogenies and identification keys are the foundation of understanding ants at the species level. Phylogenomic studies in the genera Nylanderia, Leptomyrmex, and Lordomyrma have shed light on evolutionary origins of the lineages as well as revealed hidden diversity of extant species. Ongoing NSF-funded work with Nylanderia explores the origins, diversity, and species boundaries within this widespread clade, which includes more than a dozen problematic species.

Nylanderia fulva worker
Photo © Miles Zhang

Ecology of introduced ants

Many terrestrial arthropod communities are now comprised of large numbers of exotic species, yet we do not fully understand how these ‘introduced communities’ come to be assembled or their influence on ecosystem function. Projects include 1) assessing changing patterns of ant community composition, 2) quantifying effects of abiotic factors, such as fire, on ant community composition in threatened or fragmented ecosystems, and 3) examining population genomic patterns in common urban ant species in North America, such as the introduced pavement ant, Tetramorium immigrans.

Tetramorium caespitum

Public science

When scientists team up with public partners, research can achieve new dimension, both in terms of the scale of data collection and in terms of the educational value of collaboration. Our projects invite anyone to participate in the process of ‘doing’ science! Thousands of ant collectors made a huge success of the 10-year School of Ants project, a partnership with Rob Dunn. Together, we built a massive collection and map of ants found in backyards and schoolyards across the USA. The scientific and educational value of the project flourished into publications on the genomics of ants, the educational value of participation, and the validity of data collected using this approach, among others. In our current USDA-funded project, we are inviting public participation in mapping an expanding invasive species in Florida, the little fire ant, Wasmannia auropunctata.

Little fire ants

Scholarship of teaching & learning

A research mindset and an evidence-driven approach help advance effective teaching and learning. Scholarship of this type is common in other fields but is not often used in entomology education and with specimen-based learning. Current work comparing cross-cultural approaches in entomology education is conducted in partnership with the Department of Teaching and Didactics of Biology at Charles University in Prague (Czechia), and supported by a Fulbright Scholarship. Our projects evaluate the effectiveness of different didactic tools and study incoming student knowledge levels, which then allows us to tailor teaching techniques to different learners. Tracking success makes comparisons possible across different approaches, and even across cultures.

Entomology education