All About Ants

In this day and age it seems to be quite rare to find people who are employed to do what they are passionate about and also to be paid to do it.  For me, I feel blessed to be one of those fortunate few who enjoys going to work.  Every day I can’t wait to get to work and while there I become so engrossed with what I am doing that the days just fly by.  When Friday draws to a close there is some disappointment about the end of the week, unless there is the prospect of doing at least a few extra hours over the weekend.  This seems to me to be the reverse pattern of the normal lifestyle of the majority of the workforce.

So, what is my passion?  I am totally engrossed in ants.  More specifically, I am fascinated in the taxonomy and diversity of Australian ants.  In my job as the ant taxonomist for the School of Ants, a subsidiary of the Voyager/Discovery Group based at the University of New England, I have the opportunity to process and identify ants sent in by school children from all over Australia.  School of Ants is one of a number of national citizen science projects designed to take science to the people, in this case to school students.  In the School of Ants project, teacher-supervised students place 3 different food baits (protein, fat and carbohydrate) onto 10 cards and place these cards along 2 transects of 5 cards each in 2 different habitats (paved area and grassed area) for 1 hour.  The cards are then collected and placed holus-bolus (ants and all) into zip-locked plastic bags then placed into a freezer overnight.  These are then sent by post to UNE.  Once at UNE this is where the fun starts for me.

As soon as possible, the ants are transferred from the plastic bags into vials of alcohol for immediate preservation.  From here, using a microscope, up to three specimens of each ant species present are selected to be point mounted for identification and later museum storage at UNE.  Point mounting involves carefully gluing a small triangle of cardboard (a point) to the under surface of each ant.  This then allows a pin to be pushed through the base of the triangle, therefore not damaging the ant.  Up to 3 point-mounted ants are then placed onto each pin (a specialised entomological, 38mm long pin).

Once the ants are identified, the data from each school are sent to the Atlas of Living Australia.  The schools and/or students are then able to access this data to see what sorts of ants they collected and they are also able to look at what has been collected by other schools.

To date (12 May) we have 5620 pins of ants from all states and territories of Australia, representing more than 250 species of ants.  This has involved an enormous amount of sometimes painstakingly tedious work, but it has all been worthwhile as it has given us a better understanding of species distribution.  For example, our work has uncovered some major geographical extensions of range of Pheidole megacephala (African Big-headed Ant) an accidentally introduced ant to Australia.  This aggressive pest species is one of the world’s “top 100” most invasive species and it poses a serious threat to local environments.  In many locations where it has become established it has completely destroyed other ants in the area and has become the only ant species found in that local area.  Our School of Ants work also has the potential to discover and document possible outbreaks of other, even more serious invasive ant pests such as the Red Imported Fire Ant and the Yellow Crazy Ant, both of which have received enormous attention in recent years in efforts to eradicate them from Australia.

Probably the most spellbinding moments for me come when examining ants up close and personal under the microscope.  I also get great satisfaction when I am able to share this joy of discovery with other people (young and old) when they have the opportunity to see ants under the microscope for the first time.  For most people, ants are little more than small, black, fast moving insects, but for those who are prepared to look, ants are much much more.

Anyone living in Australia would have a general awareness that we share our world with ants, mostly through unwanted association through encroachments into our living spaces at home or even close encounters of the painful kind outdoors.  The general broad-scale, unconscious awareness of people is that ants are apparently everywhere, and in Australia this is literally true, even for at least two species of Polyrhachis ants that live below the sea bed, underwater, whenever the tide is in.

Ants have adapted or become specialised to occupy every habitat within Australia.  For instance, the endemic genus Melophorus are hot climate specialists.  They are generally most active during the hottest time of the day and in some locations they are the only ant species still active on the hottest days when the ground surface temperatures are in excess of 50°C (up to 54°C).  At least one Melophorus species becomes inactive whenever the temperature falls below 37°C.  On the other hand, Australia is home to an endemic species, colloquially known as the dinosaur ant (Nothomyrmecia macrops) which is strictly nocturnal and is only active when the temperature is below 5°C.  A cold climate specialist – what a contrast!

Australia’s ant diversity is stunning.  On the world scale, Australia is a hotspot with more described species than any other country.  At present we have more than 1600 described species, making up just over 10% of the world’s known species.  Interestingly, although taxonomists have put names to that many species, it is known that there are at least twice as many undescribed species residing in collections around Australia.  Sadly, but excitingly, this is an indication that there is still an enormous amount of work available for taxonomists in this country.  For example, the genus Melophorus, already mentioned, had until recently 34 described species.  Last year this number was boosted to 92 species after a group of taxonomists brought together and described all those un-named specimens residing in collections around the country.  This is the case for many genera and it will be many years or even decades before we can work through this backlog.  This does not include those never before seen species that even I still regularly discover through intensive sampling in our local region.

To get some idea of just how incredibly diverse Australia’s ants are I would like to illustrate this with a simple comparison between what we have here in Armidale or more specifically UNE campus and, say, all of the United Kingdom.  Over the past couple of decades I can personally account for more than a hundred species of ants collected from around UNE and the immediate Armidale area.  In comparison, the total number of species documented for all of the United Kingdom, after several centuries of collecting and research, amounts to just 80 species, just 0.5% of the world percentage.

In drawing this blog to a close I would like to put out an invitation to any of you who have never looked at an ant under magnification.  Come and see me if you dare.  You might be blown away by the sheer, incredible beauty and exquisite detail of what you see.  I never tire of it.  That is what keeps me coming back to my fabulous dream job.

– By Steve Trémont, of the School of Ants

Steve can be contacted at stremontAToutlook.com.au