The evolution of mutualisms between animals is a fascinating source of research and one that tackles big questions in animal behaviour (such as cooperation) and evolution. The meat ants in the Central Tablelands of NSW have a close relationship with aphids that live in nearby eucalyptus trees. The benefits of this relationship for ants and aphids alike are unknown, but intuitively they seems to centre on providing nutritional benefit to ants via a sugary secretion produced by the aphids, while for their part ants provide a defensive mechanism for aphids against possible predators. Both hypotheses are yet to be tested and are ideal prospects for an honours project.
In this project, the honours student will test whether ants provide an anti-predator defence for aphids against birds by performing a combination of ant exclusion experiments and the deployment of clay aphid mimics on trees with and without an association with meat ants to measure predator attack rates. Another project might focus on the nutritional benefit supplied to meat ants by documenting the calorie value of aphid secretions and the behaviour of ants to different potential food sources.