Maria Stahl ’20, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Certificate(s): Environmental Studies

I studied the mutualistic relationship between Acacia drepanolobium trees and several species of ants. Specifically, I looked at how the insects’ presence affects the acacias’ investment in molecular defense mechanisms against fungi. I collected samples of leaves from specific trees where ant activity had been monitored for five years. I compared the levels of chitinase (a fungal-defense enzyme) produced by the antoccupied trees to levels found in trees from which ants had been removed. The idea was that trees inhabited by ants invest less energy in fungal defense because the insects do most of the grunt work. I gained an appreciation for the complexity and elegance of the savanna ecosystem. It’s easy to forget the interconnectedness of the landscape, especially when species interact in ways invisible to the naked eye. The lab work was more extensive than anything I’d done before, which helped me develop good techniques to carry out protocols efficiently and accurately. The skills and knowledge I developed through this project will be extremely beneficial to me as I continue to study ecology and evolutionary biology and become more involved in conservation.