After two decades of analyzing the rise, spread and collapse of Azteca ant colonies in a coffee farm in Mexico, University of Michigan researchers have proven that the ant distributions follow a pattern named after chemist Alan Turing, who first described it in 1952, that is said to explain leopards’ spots and other patterns in nature.

“The same equations that Turing used for chemistry, we can use in ecology,” said John Vandermeer, a professor in the U-M Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and first author of a study in the December issue of BioScience. “Those equations say you should get spots of predators and spots of prey in a system, and we’ve proven you do.”

The finding, he says, helps shed light on the complex agroecological system of coffee farms and how the “control from above” (focused on pests) model is also more complicated than a predator-prey relationship. The system includes a complex community of predators, parasites and diseases that interact with each other in complicated ways that eventually generate a self-organized system that exerts effective control over the herbivore.

“This is an important finding because it shows how organisms in nature are embedded within a complex web of interactions and, therefore, the simplistic pest management approach of ‘one pest, one natural enemy’ may not be the most appropriate one for pest management,” said co-author Ivette Perfecto, the George W. Pack Professor of Ecology, Natural Resources and Environment at U-M’s School for the Environment and Sustainability.

“Rather, a complex systems approach that accounts for nonlinearities and networks of interactions is what is needed.”

Coauthors include a veritable who’s who from the Vandermeer lab over the years. See the paper linked above for the complete author list. Current student coauthors include Gordon Fitch, Zach Hajian-Forooshani and Chatura Vaidya.

Read full Michigan News release.