A substantial portion of my job is spent hunched over a box watching ants. You might think that as a child I was the kid crouched over an ant hill with a magnifying glass, either making detailed behavioral observations or trying to light ants on fire. Neither of those scenarios are true. I had no idea that ant biologist, or to use the fancier term, myrmecologist, was a real-life career option. If my childhood passions destined me to study anything, I would currently be a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle biologist. As a college student working in a research lab, what got me hooked on ants was their behaviors and trying to understand how they’ve managed to become one of the most successful groups of social animals on the planet. Nearly a year ago, I moved to North Carolina to open the Evolutionary Biology & Behavior Research Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and started a research program focusing on ants and their societies.
Reasons for studying ants are many. To best illustrate this here’s a brief list of gee-whiz ant facts that I give you permission to impress all of your friends and family members with:
▪ There are more than 15,000 described species of ants.
▪ Every ant lives in a society or colony, and the number of ants per colony ranges from 10 to over 2 million.
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▪ Some ants farm their own food.
▪ Some ants herd their own livestock.
▪ Zombie ants are a real thing.
▪ Ants hold the record for fastest appendage movement in the animal kingdom!
From 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 17, the Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh hosts the 20th anniversary of BugFest and this year’s theme is Ants! At this year’s BugFest you’ll have the opportunity to rub shoulders with me and other ant biology enthusiasts. I’ll be opening my research lab to visitors and showing off some of the amazing insects that we work on. For instance, you’ll have the chance to meet the mighty trap-jaw ants. These ants are predacious insect huntresses that leave their nest to hunt small insect prey like springtails and termites. They do this by snapping their bear-trap-like, spring-loaded jaws down on unsuspecting prey, only to follow it up with a potent injection of paralyzing venom. Look for more research stories and discoveries, from these and other incredible insects, to be on display in my lab and throughout the museum that Saturday. See you there!
Adrian Smith is head of the Evolutionary Biology & Behavior Research Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences