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Hampton’s ant man: Dr. Dash and his interest in insects

(Dr. Dash)

(Dr. Dash)

Nysah Warren | Staff Writer

The study of insects always intrigued Dr. Shawn Dash. As a child, he collected insects, snakes, turtles and other outdoor creatures. “They’re kind of creepy looking, but they do really cool things,” said Dr. Dash referring to insects. Dr. Dash is originally from Baltimore County, Maryland. He studied undergrad at the University of Delaware where he double majored in entomology—the study of ants—and wildlife ecology.

He received his masters from Louisiana State University and he got his Ph.D. at the University of Texas. While in college, Dash did a lot of research. During undergrad he volunteered with graduate students. He did not always study insects, however. “I was originally really interested in birds,” said Dash. “But getting up really, really early as an undergrad to study birds was really hard.”

Dash interest in ants emerged when a professor gave him a project in the study of ants. Dr. Dash has been studying the evolution of a type of ant called hypoponera—little ant—for about 11 years. He says that in the new world, meaning North America to South America, there are about 60 species of hypoponera. Dash looks at the specie’s diversity and its evolutionary relationships.

He is the only one thus far that has looked at these ant species and knows that they exist. “As you start to research things, you find out that there is a lot of stuff not known,” Dr. Dash commented. Dash says people are not quite sure of what the hypoponera ants do, and their place in the ecosystem.

“I’m going to name one species after Dr. Harvey because of him doing stuff with the environment, pushing stem [and] being supportive of environmental issues,” said Dash.

Currently, Dash is in the process of researching ants in Virginia. His research will help learn what ants are common to the area, what threats they pose, which species are endangered, the distribution of pest ants and a multitude of other important information. He includes undergraduate students in his research to teach them how to research like scientists and to discover the various ants that are present in Virginia.

“Knowing what is here, you can see how it’s changed and potentially protect those that are here,” said Dash. While many may not see the purpose of ants in our ecosystem, Dash lists many purposes that ants serve. He says there are about 12,000 known species of ants. “Ants are going to be major predators in the ecosystem,” said Dash, “so they’re eating other insects.”

He also says ants aerate the soil when they burrow to build their colonies which keeps the earth fertile and rich for plants to grow. They spread seeds and serve as food to other that may only eat ants. “Without ants, a lot of ecosystems are going to fall apart,” said Dash.

He said his research has been funded by himself and Nano HU. Dash has applied for other grants, but is awaiting to hear back on them.  The research he says, with the help of students and more grants, should take about two to four years. Dr. Dash says that if students want to partake in the research they can email him at shawn.dash@hamptonu.edu.

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