Department of Biology, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK, USA.
ZIN Technologies, Inc., Middleburg Heights, OH, USA.
Lorain County Community College, Elyria, OH, USA.
Oklahoma Biological Survey, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK, USA.
The atmosphere is populated by a diverse array of dispersing insects and their predators. We studied aerial insect communities by tracking the foraging altitudes of an avian insectivore, the Purple Martin (Progne subis). By attaching altitude loggers to nesting PurpleMartins and collecting prey delivered to their nestlings, we determined the flight altitudes of ants and other insects. We then tested hypotheses relating ant body size and reproductive ecology to flight altitude. PurpleMartins flew up to 1,889 meters above ground, and nestling provisioning trips ranged up to 922 meters. Insect communities were structured by body size such that species of all sizes flew near the ground but only light insects flew to the highest altitudes. Ant maximum flight altitudes decreased by 60% from the lightest to the heaviest species. Winged sexuals of social insects (ants, honey bees, and termites) dominated the Purple Martin diet, making up 88% of prey individuals and 45% of prey biomass. By transferring energy from terrestrial to aerial food webs, mating swarms of social insects play a substantial role in aerial ecosystems. Although we focus on PurpleMartins and ants, our combined logger and diet method could be applied to a range of aerial organisms.