Adventures of the ant man: a biologist risks life and limb searching for ants.
Once, during a research trip to one of the world's rain forests, Fisher survived a potentially deadly bout with the disease malaria. And during another expedition, a war broke out in the region. Fisher hobbled to safety in a bordering country, wearing only one shoe and using a cane because an infection had caused one of his legs to balloon to twice its normal size.
Fisher's nerves of steel would be the envy of any reality-show contestant: When a bloodsucking leech slithered up his nose and lodged in his nostril, "I just waited until it had finished feeding, and then blew it out," he says.
And no Hollywood challenge could compete with Fisher's real-life run-in with Loa Loa worms. The nematodes--which can reach 0.8 meters (2.5 feet) in length--burrowed beneath his skin during an expedition in Africa. As the threadlike worms grew, Fisher could see them wriggling under his skin.
What compels Fisher to endure these painful and punishing research conditions? Ants. For 20 years, Fisher has left no stone unturned in a quest to uncover every species of ant that scurries on Earth.
SWARMING WITH ANTS
Why does Fisher care so much about these arthropods (see Nuts & Bolts, p. 10)? "You can't go anywhere on Earth without meeting an ant," he says. "They dominate almost all terrestrial (land-based) habitats."
Scientists estimate that there are at least 20,000 different ant species on Earth. But researchers have identified only about 12,000 of them. To dig up more of the six-legged arthropods and learn about the lifestyles of different types of ants, Fisher has spent years scouring the soil in Madagascar (see map, below).
This island off the coast of eastern Africa is geographically diverse, making it an ideal spot to hunt for different types of ants. Towering mountain peaks and lush rain forests dominate the east, while low-lying deserts that receive almost no rain all year can be found in the west.
Fisher knew that in each of these unique habitats, different types of ants would be scurrying by the thousands in the soil and trees. To narrow his search, Fisher chose 140 sites--each with a unique combination of soil type and rainfall--to chase down these large ant colonies.
To reach the remote research sites, Fisher and his team of scientists navigate through dense forests in powerful 4x4 trucks. The trips are often tricky because Fisher does his research during Madagascar's six-month rainy season. When the weather is warm and wet, the insects are more active. But the season's frequent rainstorms regularly wash out bridges and coat roads with a thick layer of mud. "Our team has become skilled at recovering the vehicle," says Fisher. "If our truck gets stuck--and it gets stuck all the time--we have to be able to get it out."
Once they reach their destination, the team spends three to five days scouring the area's soil, trees, plants, and rotten logs for ants. They set up water-filled cups to capture crawling insects. They also sift through the litter of leaves that blankets the forest floor. "That's where you get most of the insects," Fisher says.
So far, Fisher has discovered 800 previously unknown ant species in Madagascar. "Every ant tells a different story," he says.
One of Fisher's favorite finds is the Dracula ant, a new species, in the genus Mystrium. These ants earned their name because the adults nourish themselves by sucking blood from the young ants in their colony.
Fisher discovered another new species when he hacked into a log and a swarm of ants ran up his arm and started stinging him. Fisher knew that no ant in Madagascar known to science exhibited this type of aggressive behavior, which is characteristic of army ants. "They form a pack that goes out and overwhelms prey," Fisher says. "When I saw [the ants swarm my arm], I knew they were a new species."
Another distinctive ant from Madagascar has a middle set of legs that stick straight up. This species-Melissotarsus insularis--produces silk and spends its life in silk-lined tunnels inside tree trunks. Its skewed middle legs help it to walk both on the roof and floor of the tunnels. "However, once you take the ant out of the tunnels, it can't walk," Fisher says.
Fisher hopes that by documenting all of the unique ant species in Madagascar, he can help to save the country's rapidly disappearing forests.
Ninety-seven percent of the rain forests in Madagascar have already been cut down to make room for farmland. In an effort to save what remains, Madagascar's government has recently committed to tripling the number of protected forest regions in the country.
With Fisher's help, the decisions about which places should be saved will be guided in part by the ants that live there. "You have to decide which of those forest patches to protect based on the group of different species found there," he says. "[Documenting] arthropods like ants provides a very accurate, fine-scale view of the diversity of organisms in an area."
Fisher hopes that his research will help to protect Madagascar's dwindling forests. But what really drives him to battle bloodsuckers and endure burrowing worms? He loves the thrill of discovering unknown animals. "The greatest adventure is to discover everything about life on this planet," he says. "We have only begun to scratch the surface."
To help scientists and the public keep track of the world's ants, Fisher is hoping to create a catalogue of all the known ant species. Check out his online guide, which includes high-quality photographs and links to maps showing where each type of ant can be found: www.antweb.org
nuts & bolts
Like all arthropods, ants are invertebrates. Instead of having a backbone and internal skeleton as humans do, their bodies are protected by a hard outer shell, or exoskeleton. Arthropods also have a segmented body and jointed appendages. The organisms in the phylum Arthropoda, which includes insects, spiders, and lobsters, account for more than 90 percent of all the animal species on Earth.
(1) MOTOR MOUTH: Researchers have just found that it uses its jaws to propel itself.
(2) DRILLER: Tunnels holes in trees. Its middle legs stick straight up.
(3) SEARCHER: Skilled at hunting hard-to-find prey.
(4) GRIPPER: Uses sickle-shaped mandibles (jaws) to grasp prey.
(5) PICKY EATER: Specializes in eating spider eggs.
(6) TRICKY TRAPPER: Its jaws snap shut when prey triggers tiny hairs.
(7) PREDATOR: Stalks prey in the leaf litter on the forest floor.
(8) DRACULA: Feeds by sucking blood from young ants' bodies.
(9) BLOCKHEAD: Uses its armored head to shove away enemies.
ANT TRAP: Fisher modified a vacuum to collect ants.
Deep ravines called lavaka, a Malagasy word for hole, frequently destroy roads.
Fisher's truck stalled while crossing a bridgeless river. It took five teams of ox-driven carts to pull it out.
Fisher and his team regularly have to stop to dig the truck out of the mud.
Jumpstart your lesson with these pre-reading questions:
* Entomologists are scientists who study insects. Within that group are scientists who specialize in researching ants. What are these scientists called? The answer: myrmecologists.
* Suppose you were asked to find and document all of the insect species that lived in a remote forest area. How would you plan for the trip? What challenges might you encounter on the expedition?
* According to Brian Fisher, the scientist featured in the article: "If you were to put all [of the world's] ants together in a big pile, they would weigh as much as all humans put together in a big pile." Although ants dominate the biomass on Earth, scientists know little about their lives and behavior, says Fisher. What do you think some of the reasons are for the lack of knowledge about these insects?
ART: "Every ant tells a different story, and that story is reflected in how different they look," says Brian Fisher. Research and draw two different ant species. Compare them by explaining how their different features reflect their lives and behavior.
COOL SCIENCE CAREER
Brian Fisher, Entomologist, California Academy of Sciences
Education: Fisher received a bachelor's and a master's degree in biology. Then he completed a Ph.D. in entomology.
Personality needed for the job: "A bug hunter must be able to master complex logistics, survive difficult living conditions, work in foreign languages and culture, employ technology, and do good science," says Fisher.
Job openings: You can work at a museum or a university. "However, most entomologists work in agriculture or private consulting," says Fisher.
To learn more about careers in entomology, visit: www.entsoc.org/resources/education/index.htm
* "Antsy in Madagascar," by Richard Conniff, Discover, March 2006.
* Here are the scientific names for the ants featured in the student edition.
Cover: Gigantiops destructor; Page 8: 1. Odontomachus coquereli; 2. Melissotarsus insularis; 3. Proceratium google; 4. Genus: Leptogenys; 5. Discothyrea berlita; 6. Anochetus grandidieri; 7. Strumigenys rogeri; 8. Genus: Mystrium; 9. Cataulacus oberthueri; Page 11: Pyramica hoplites
CHECK FOR UNDERSTANDING
DIRECTIONS: Fill in the blanks to complete the following sentences:
1. Scientists estimate that there are at least -- different ant species on Earth. These species dominate almost all --, or land-based, habitats.
2. Ants have -- legs. Their large communities are called --.
3. Instead of having a backbone and internal skeleton like humans do, ants are --. Their bodies are protected by a(n) --, or a hard outer shell.
4. Ants have segmented -- and jointed --.
5. Ants belong to the phylum --, which includes insects, spiders, and --.
Adventures of the Ant Man
1. 20,000; terrestrial
2. six; colonies
3. invertebrates; exoskeleton
4. bodies, appendages
5. Arthropoda, lobsters