Friday, February 02, 2007

Myrmecophilia


I've always liked ants.

When we were kids my cousin and brother (two different people) and I would put ants in jars and watch them dig tunnels and stuff. A fair number of caterpillars and grasshoppers went into the jars as well, to be torn apart in grisly episodes of Predator Theater. We lost our taste for it when we put a toad in. First his ass got covered in ants. Then he covered himself and them with copious amounts of poison snot exuded from his skin. We pulled him out, washed him off, and set him free.

Reading that now, I suppose it sounds pretty awful. But what you gotta realize is, we realized at the time that there was a line and we had crossed it. If we'd been caught and spanked, it would have been just one more in a long line of forgettable Times We Got In Trouble. But we had the freedom to escalate things until we made ourselves sick, and I will never forget that. It unsettles me to this day.

And hey, the toad was none the worse for the wear.

A few years later E.O. Wilson's monster book, The Ants, came out, and it was celebrated with a big National Geographic article with lots of detailed full-color paintings of ants taking care of business. I must have read that article about a zillion times. I had ant-mania for a while, but it didn't last.

Ants have popped up in my life from time to time since then. Most recently last month when I got to spend a day chasing ants with Bill Clark in Big Bend. I picked up a random, fist-sized chunk of granite halfway along a transect. I held it close to my face to get a good look at the crystals and the weathering patterns. Then I flipped it over to see what the bottom side looked like.

The other side of the rock was completely covered with an undulating swarm of tiny red fire ants. None of my fingers were more than a centimeter from the ants. I have no idea how they could have been so riled up and not come around the side of the rock and eaten my freakin' hand off, but they didn't.

Imagine picking up a hamburger, flipping it over to look at the bun, and finding it totally covered with a living carpet of ants. I was caught equally off guard. The rock went up in the air, I jumped back about ten feet and started doing a modified form of the spider dance. Eeeeeeeeee-yargh!! [shudder]

Then I discovered this post on litter ants by Mike Kaspari, an ecologist at my old alma mater. Litter ants are cool, man. They are tiny. Their colonies are tiny.

Litter ants live on the forest floor in small hollow twigs, empty acorns, or even between leaves. The whole colony may consist of only 100 or so ants, just enough to cover the tip of your pinky. This small size allows litter ants to be incredibly abundant: in a tropical rainforest there may be 5-10 species living together in a meter square plot.
How cool is that!? A whole colony in an acorn. These things are to the rest of the ant kingdom what my aquarium is to the Amazon.

How much would it suck to pick up that acorn and put it in your pocket?

Anyway, litter ants are also cool for another reason.

And then the “aha!” moment.

I saw this Pheidole colony as carrying within it a little tally sheet as to how much it had allocated to growth and colony maintenance (the number of workers), how much it had allocated to defense (the majors), and how much it had allocated to reproduction (the winged males and queens). Furthermore, if I looked very carefully, I could see the ants carrying pupae of workers, majors, and reproductives: a record of where the colony wanted to go in the future! The mind raced. I was surrounded by thousands of litter ant colonies, hundreds of species (of which, scads were Pheidole) all waiting to be harvested and tallied toward understanding a big question in EEB: “by what rules do individuals invest their limited time and resources into different activities–all of them critical to the colony’s fitness?"


Van Valen, eat yer heart out.

I gotta say, it's being able to answer exactly those kinds of questions that occasionally makes me wish I worked on something a little smaller and more, um, alive than sauropods.

Oh, who am I kidding? Sauropods rock too hard, even if I will die with a lot of unanswered questions.



I suppose everyone does.



And then?



Your mortal remains get decomposed.





By freakin' ants!

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