STRI Panama


Project: Acacia ant mutualism: behavioral and anatomical co-evolution of traits

Project title

Acacia ant mutualism: behavioral and anatomical co-evolution of traits

Photo credit: Sabrina Amador

Mentor name

Sabrina Amador,


Tupper, Panamá

Project summary and objectives

Acacia plants coevolved with ants in an obligate association. The interaction is mutualistic with some ant species and parasitic with others. During an internship in this project, you can work with ant behavior, ant or plant anatomy, and the behavior of organisms that chose the ant-defended acacia as their home. We aim to understand plasticity in ant and plant traits and convergence or divergence in other organisms' strategies to live with the ant-acacia mutualism.

Mentorship goals

In this internship, you can learn about ant taxonomy and the anatomy of the head capsule (internal and external, using confocal microscopy). You can also learn about acacia plants, plasticity, and coevolved traits. Last, you could also collaborate in recording behavioral data of organisms that interact with the ant-acacia mutualism (using high-speed videos, regular videos, experiments in the field, etc).

Desired Background

We want a self-motivated person willing to withstand harsh conditions in the field (heat, humidity, and accidental ant stings). We encourage independent work and independent thinking, so there are possibilities to have a parallel project linked to ours if you are interested. ¡Aplicaciones en español son bienvenidas!

List of suggested readings

Amador-Vargas S, González, Y., Guevara, M., & Gijsman, F. 2022. Scaling of indirect defences in Central American swollen-thorn acacias. Journal of Tropical Ecology, 1-7. doi:10.1017/S0266467422000293 

Amador-Vargas S. & Porras-Brenes K. 2022. Three neotropical bird species shift nest-site preferences from swollen-thorn acacias to other sites in human-altered habitats. Biotropica 54: 1071-1080.

Amador-Vargas S., Wcislo W.T. 2021. Nestmate interference in acacia ants vary with colony size and task-specialization. Animal Behavior 181: 151–163.

Gijsman, F., Gonzalez Y., Guevara M. & Amador-Vargas S. Short-term plasticity and variation in acacia ant-rewards under different conditions of ant occupancy and herbivory. 2021. The Science of Nature. 108(4):31. doi: 10.1007/s00114-021-01738-w.

Amador-Vargas S., Orribarra S.V., Portugal-Loayza A. & Fernández-Marín H. 2021. Association patterns of acacia plants with three ant species and related organisms in a dry forest of Panama. Biotropica. 3: 560– 566.

Coronado J., Solís del Valle M., Amador-Vargas S. 2020. True bugs living on ant-defended acacias: evasion strategies and ant species preferences, in Costa Rica and Panama. Revista de Biología Tropical 68: 415-425.

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