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Marine to Myrmecologist: One Entomologist’s Journey to Understand and Conserve Native Biodiversity

Jackson Helms IV, Ph.D.

Jackson Helms IV, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral researcher at the Kellogg Biological Station at Michigan State University. His time serving as a language analyst for the United States Marine Corps in Iraq both strengthened his interest in the natural world and drove his future interest in international scientific collaboration. (Photo courtesy of Alex Wild)

By Karl Roeder, Ph.D.

Editor’s Note: This is the next post in the “Standout ECPs” series contributed by the Entomological Society of America’s Early Career Professionals (ECP) Committee, highlighting outstanding ECPs that are doing great work in the profession. (An ECP is defined as anyone within the first five years of obtaining their terminal degree in their field.) Learn more about the work ECPs are doing within ESA, and read past posts in the Standout ECPs series.

Jackson Helms IV, Ph.D., is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Kellogg Biological Station at Michigan State University. Jackson, originally from Ohio, graduated with his Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Oklahoma in 2016. Prior to his current position, he worked with a variety of taxa as a conservation scientist in Indonesia and served as a language analyst for the United States Marine Corps. Jackson received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship for his dissertation work on ant dispersal and has been awarded numerous grants to support conservation research. Below, we ask Jackson a few questions about his research and travel adventures.

Roeder: After your service in the Marines, you enrolled at Ohio State as an undergraduate. What drew you to entomology and ultimately to conservation biology?

Helms: I have always been interested in nature and living things. Growing up in a declining Rust Belt town, searching out hidden pockets of nature was a way to escape from my home life and find beauty in the world. My time in the Marines reignited that passion. During two combat deployments to Iraq, observing nature helped me cope with the horrors and ethical dilemmas of war. It was in Fallujah that I made my first ant identification—a desert-dwelling Cataglyphis species. Later, while living on the Iraq-Syria border in an area that would later be occupied by ISIS, I would lug a pair of clunky military binoculars onto a fortified roof to watch for birds.

Most of the time I worked as an Arabic linguist, interacting with the people of Iraq, who shared their perspectives about their land, its people, and the other creatures that inhabited it. My experience there prodded me into long-term thinking about our relationships with nature. I was in the land of humanity’s first farms and some of her earliest written stories. Perhaps nowhere on earth is the story of man’s impact on nature so deep and so well catalogued.

While there I read the epic of Gilgamesh, which describes two approaches to nature—embracing it or conquering it—and contains 4,000-year-old warnings about the dangers of deforestation. I looked over the Euphrates River while reading ancient descriptions of the area as filled with ostriches and onagers, both now extirpated. I listened to people describe the Mesopotamian Marshlands and the Marsh Arab culture, the two of them mutually dependent on each other, persecuted in tandem for years, and undergoing a spontaneous social-ecological revival.

It all inspired me to make a commitment to devote my life to studying and restoring nature. My interest in insects followed naturally, given how ubiquitous and amazing they are, and gradually developed into a professional focus. I transitioned from the Marines, went to college on the G.I. Bill, and launched my research career.

Roeder: Currently, what is the main goal of your research?

Helms: I have three major research goals. First, I try to understand a poorly known but critical aspect of ant life history—the mating flight. How do ants fly through the atmosphere, disperse across landscapes, invade new areas, and mate and found colonies? How do the conflicting demands of those processes send different species down alternate evolutionary paths?

Second, working on long-term experiments at the Kellogg Biological Station, I study how restoring agricultural landscapes to natural vegetation supports native species and the ecosystem services they provide. These projects focus on farming practices like switching from corn ethanol to native biofuels, restoring strips of prairie within crop fields, and using organic instead of chemical agriculture.

Third, I collaborate on conservation projects that work to protect natural landscapes and traditional ways of life. Most of my conservation work has focused on local communities in Indonesian Borneo, where I study the success of initiatives that integrate human health, economic conditions, and conservation outcomes.

Roeder: What is the most interesting research challenge that you have encountered, and what was your approach to solving it?

Helms: A recurring problem that arises in any research involving ant flight is how to actually learn what ants do in the air. Ants fly only once in their lives, for a period as short as a few minutes. Queens shed their wings immediately after flying and spend the rest of their life on the ground, while the males die soon after flying, usually within a day or so. So, you have a severely restricted window in which to observe them in flight, a problem made even more difficult by their tiny size.

My approach to this challenge was to give up on tracking ants directly and instead track their much larger predators. I teamed up with an ornithologist to monitor the flight altitudes of nesting Purple Martins, which hunt for insects kilometers above the earth’s surface. Whenever the birds returned to earth to feed insects to their nestlings, we took the food from the chicks (we also fed them mealworms so they didn’t go hungry). By matching the prey with the hunting altitudes of the birds, we learned where in the atmosphere different ant species flew.

Beyond that, two other approaches have been helpful in studying the dynamics and consequences of ant flight—studying the historical spread of invasive ants and programming computer models to simulate ant populations and their evolution.

Roeder: In addition to your work in the United States, you have also done research in five other countries. What are some of the challenges and rewards that you have experienced in doing research abroad?

Helms: My first career as a linguist probably informs my international work and maybe even the way I approach science. Languages, intercultural communication, and travel have been an integral part of my work and identity throughout my adult life. I take it as a given that different projects or aspects of life require new ways of thinking and communicating, sort of like rewiring your brain for specific contexts.

Once you accept that, the biggest challenges in international work are practical ones involving things—logistics, transportation, money, paperwork. But the rewards are long-lasting, like learning new languages, interacting with other cultures and ways of life, and experiencing fundamentally different landscapes. In my research, I tend to go broad rather than deep, and international work helps develop that approach by providing a wide range of perspectives, landscapes, and case studies to draw upon for ideas.

Roeder: Finally, what is your favorite arthropod and why?

Helms: The past few years I have found myself becoming fascinated with ant social parasites. These are ants that survive by manipulating the social structures of other colonies or species in tons of different ways. Some species infiltrate the nests of others and steal their food. Others kidnap live workers from other colonies and use them to do labor in their own colony. Some even attach themselves to the backs of host queens for the rest of their lives, making them both ectoparasites and social parasites.

Their odd lifestyles sometimes defy our notions of what an ant is. For example, some parasites produce no workers and have thereby done away with the reproductive caste system, cooperative brood care, and overlapping generations—the three classical benchmarks for being considered eusocial. There are even parasitic queens that may live alone in the wild for a while before moving into a host colony, which is about as far as you can get from our traditional idea of a nest-dwelling queen cared for by her extended family.

Beyond their weirdness, social parasites also seem to crop up everywhere. In some parts of the world, a third of the ant species are parasites! I find them inserting themselves into research projects that had nothing to do with parasitism at the outset. Several of my papers have results that revolve around social parasites, even though I never explicitly set out to study them.

Roeder: Thanks Jackson! You can learn more about Jackson’s work at www.jacksonhelms.com or find him on Twitter @Marine_Ants.

Karl Roeder, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the North Central Branch representative to the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Email: karoeder@illinois.edu.

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