My research addresses the processes generating, maintaining, and threatening biodiversity, from local to global scales. The work typically focuses on arthropods – arguably the planet's most diverse and important organisms. Besides advancing understanding of the structure and functioning of ecosystems, the findings have implications for conservation as well as the management of key threats to biodiversity, such as human pressures and biological invasions. A selection of recent work follows below.
Trait-Based Ecology and Functional Diversity
The search for general rules that predict the form, function, and fate of biodiversity is an enduring goal in Ecology. Traits which impact the interactions and fitness of organisms can serve as 'common currency' for formulating general and predictive rules about ecological process, structure, and function, from local to global scales.
There is tremendous interest in trait-based approaches in ecology and conservation. Nonetheless, knowledge about the diversity of animal species’ traits and their interactions is far from complete.
To address this, I have conducted a synthesis of trait-based research in terrestrial arthropods (Wong et al. 2019. Biological Reviews), and investigated ways for reliably assessing the 'functional diversity' (trait diversity) of empirical communities (Wong & Carmona. 2021. Methods in Ecology and Evolution). I also use trait-based approaches to understand various ecological and evolutionary mechanisms in my other work.
The Assembly and Responses of Ecological Communities
Community assembly encompasses all processes that structure and maintain biodiversity. Competition between species is perhaps the most familiar but also enigmatic of these.
I have integrated trait-based approaches with competition theory to explore how invaded tropical ant assemblages might be structured at fine spatial scales (Wong et al. 2021. Ecography; Wong et al. 2022, Proceedings of the Royal Society B). The findings highlight a need to account for the contrasting ways by which species' trait differences may determine the outcomes of competition when seeking to understand community assembly.
I am also currently investigating the responses of diverse ecological communities to human pressures at the large scale.
Alien species and biological invasions
Biological invasions are recognised as a major driver of species extinctions worldwide, but their effects on the functional dimension of biodiversity are less understood. Working at the community scale, I have led the first study on the impacts of an ant invasion on functional diversity (Wong et al., Oikos). The research shows that invasion by the notorious Red Imported Fire Ant has led to a 'functional homogenisation' (loss of trait diversity) among tropical ant communities, which has curiously been unmet by comparable changes in species diversity. The findings have implications for the timely detection of changing biodiversity in the face of environmental disturbances.
Working at the global scale, I have led a study to map the worldwide spread of all documented alien ant species and distinguish their capacities to invade ecosystems (Wong et al., 2023. Current Biology). The results show that as many as 520 ant species have been accidentally transported beyond their native ranges worldwide, and that the southern United States as well as numerous oceanic islands are global hotspots for ant invasions. The details and implications of the findings have been communicated in a news report for National Geographic.
Speciation and Phylogeography
Speciation is a fundamental processes that generates biodiversity. Studying a deadly Australian funnel-web spider species, I found that geographic isolation and genetic divergence tracing back to the Pleistocene could explain a divergence in the morphological – but not physiological – traits among present-day populations (Wong et al. 2017. Ecology and Evolution). The work illuminates how phylogeography, changing environments and local selective pressures may drive speciation in a short-range endemic invertebrate.
Taxonomy and Natural History
Taxonomy and natural history form the bedrock of ecological research and our understanding of nature.
Intrigued by the sheer diversity of ants, I have described several new species (e.g., Wong & Guénard. 2016. ZooKeys; Wong & Guénard. 2016. Journal of Hymenoptera Research) as well as the natural histories of rare groups (Wong & Yong. 2017. Asian Myrmecology).
I am also especially fascinated by subterranean (underground) ants. Considered the 'final frontier' of ant diversity, subterranean ants are diverse and key components of soil communities, but very poorly known. I have reviewed the ecology and methods for studying these enigmatic creatures (Wong & Guénard. 2017. Myrmecological News); also see this award-winning essay.