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KNOXVILLE– We see them almost every day — crawling over mounds of dirt, sometimes lurking in our homes, and many times gnawing on morsels of littered food. But what many do not realize is that ants play a key role in our ecosystem.

Without ants, as many as 50 percent of the plants in the southern Appalachian forests would not exist. That is because ants dispose of seeds after they eat what they want of them, thus dispersing plant species and allowing them to grow.

But ants’ foraging habits are changing due to climate change. Nathan Sanders, an associate professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and Sharon Bewick, a postdoctoral researcher, are conducting research as a part of a project at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS — pronounced “NIM-bus”) to learn what effects these changes will have on our world.

They will get help this summer from undergraduates coming from around the country to participate in the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) and Research Experience for Veterinary (REV) programs operated by NIMBioS. Eighteen participants will conduct research in the programs, which run from June 7 to July 30.

NIMBioS, located on the UT Knoxville campus, fosters new collaborative efforts to investigate biological questions using mathematical and computational methods.

Using data from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the undergraduate researchers — all majoring in math, biology, veterinary science and related fields — will live on campus and work in teams with UT Knoxville professors on various research projects. In addition to research mentors, some teams will include veterinary students or high school teachers.

In addition to working with Sanders and Bewick on the ant study, teams of the undergraduates will work on a variety of projects using biological data to build mathematical models on computers that will be used to make predictions.

For example, a four-student team will analyze data from the Young-Williams Animal Shelter in Knoxville to determine the most effective population control measures for stray cats and dogs. First, students will estimate the number of cats and dogs in the area and predict future growth with a mathematical model that can be applied to other communities. The team also will analyze the effectiveness of various control strategies, such as spaying and neutering, and potential impact on intake of animals and euthanasia rates at animal shelters.

Past REU participants have received recognition for their work. Last year, one participant won an undergraduate research award from UT Knoxville while several others presented research at national conferences.

Since opening its doors in March 2009, more than 700 scientists representing more than 250 different institutions worldwide have participated in NIMBioS’ research and educational opportunities. Participants have included ecologists, epidemiologists, economists, mathematicians and computer scientists, among others. The institute is a collaborative effort between the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

C O N T A C T:

Catherine Crawley (865-974-9350,

Whitney Holmes (865-974-5460,