Eli Sarnat

Ant systematist

About me

I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area’s coast range where I spent my earliest years on hand and knee amongst oak woodlands, peering under stones and logs for creatures more fantastical than any children’s book could illustrate. When it came time to choose a project for my high school thesis, I argued that the many hallmarks of human civilization – notably the domestication of crops and animals, division of labor, slavery, warfare and altruism – were achieved by ant civilization while our own ancestors were eking out an obscure existence in the African treetops.

This fascination with ants, which remains the focus of current research, was fostered by a predisposition for staring at the ground, a family vacation to the jungles of Central America, and an early reading of E.O. Wilson and Bert Hölldobler’s "The Ants" and "Journey to the Ants." My interest in these small creatures led to a job at the Essig Museum of Entomology as an undergraduate at University of California Berkeley, and to an impressionable semester abroad in Costa Rica with the Organization for Tropical Studies. After a year working on an organic farm in Mendocino, and a summer stint in the Smithsonian’s insect collection, I joined Phil Ward’s ant systematics lab to pursue a doctoral degree in entomology from UC Davis.

Although my dissertation research would eventually settle on the systematics, biogeography, and conservation of the Fijian ant fauna, my initial plan was to use phylogenetic comparative methods to determine what life-history traits allow an inordinate number of Tetramorium ants to break free of their native ranges and spread across the globe as successful tramp species. My first pursuit of these globe-trotting invasives and their endemic sister-species took me to the Pacific islands of New Caledonia, Fiji, and New Guinea. The challenges of conducting research in New Guinea colluded with the persuasive arguments of Dr. David Olson – a fellow ant enthusiast who was directing a conservation organization in Fiji, to pivot my thesis work towards the more achievable goal of revising the ant fauna of the Fijian archipelago – a feat last attempted nearly a century ago. Invasive ants found a way back into my research program when, during my fieldwork in Fiji, I became involved with an international coalition seeking to protect Pacific Island nations against the environmental, agricultural, and human health impacts being wrought by invasive ant incursions. In this capacity, and with funding assistance from the USDA and Biosecurity New Zealand, I developed the web-based resource PIAkey: an identification guide to invasive ants of the Pacific Islands.

In addition to continuing my work on the systematics, biogeography, and conservation of Pacific ants, I am now working as a postdoc with Dr. Andrew Suarez (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) on expanding the geographic and taxonomic scope of PIAkey to include the introduced ants of North America. Both of these projects will be significantly enhanced by the opportunities afforded by EOL.

As an EOL Rubenstein Fellow, I will be integrating into EOL the taxonomic, ecological, and distributional data my colleagues and I have obtained on the native Pacific ant fauna and the global invasive ant fauna. The content will also include hundreds of high-resolution specimen images, standardized video clips of invasive ants, interactive Lucid keys, and distribution maps. I will also be working with my EOL mentor, Dr. Brian Fisher (California Academy of Sciences), to streamline the functionality of Antweb as an EOL content partner. Antweb, one of EOL’s earliest and most productive content partners, is at the forefront of the cyber-taxonomy movement. The Antweb project is a leading innovator of web-based curation tools that allow scientists from across the world to contribute specimen data and images to a centralized public website. In collaboration with Antweb engineers, I will update the Antweb interface to parse species data that more accurately comply with EOL data standards. This increase in functionality will allow the wealth of biological, distributional, and photographic content contributed by Antweb’s extensive curator community to be accessed by the ever-growing EOL community.

EOL’s LifeDesk projects are also being developed to facilitate better collaboration within the respective communities of Pacific ant scientists and invasive ant scientists. Both of these scientific communities are actively engaged in correspondences and collaborations focused on distinct sets of species, and the LifeDesk projects will act as forums for the dissemination of new ideas and research results.

I am excited to contribute to EOL’s mission of providing global access to knowledge about life on Earth through my Rubenstein Fellowship, and I believe strongly in the importance of coming together for a project of such universal scope, scale and importance.


My info

Full name
Eli Sarnat
I am
a professional scientist
Curator level
Full Curator


115 objects curated
26 taxa curated
1 image set as exemplar
5 articles selected for Overview
0 preferred classifications selected

3 common names added
2 common names removed
0 common names curated

13 taxa commented
74 comments submitted
23 articles added
0 data records added

Curator qualifications

Postdoc in the Suarez Lab, Department of Entomology, UIUC
Curation scope
Ants of Fiji Invasive, introduced and intercepted ants