Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Ants Go Marching...

by Pa Rock
Nature Enabler

My work group recently moved to a different location on base, but I continue to park in my old spot which is quite a walk in the Arizona heat to the new office. There is plenty of parking at the new location, but I am tethered to the old spot by responsibilities that can’t be ignored.

One responsibility, of course, is Bob, the brazen old grackle who flies in every morning as I am parking and paces restlessly as I get my breakfast sandwich unwrapped. I have to throw Bob several bits of cheese, egg, sausage, or muffin before daring to take a bite of the sandwich myself. He knows that the sausage-egg McMuffin is intended for him, but he will tolerate me sneaking an occasional bite if his needs are being met.

Bob has more common sense than people, and will fly off when he gets full. A few sparrows and cactus wrens swoop in after his departure and pick up most of the scraps that he leaves, but even they do not get everything. The tiniest tidbits go to a colony of ants that are located just in front of my parking space.

The ants have burrowed through several layers of asphalt (or perhaps out of several layers of asphalt) and have formed a small mound of Arizona red dirt in the center of the hard, hot parking lot. Occasionally human klutzes or evildoers will come by and step on their hill, but the industrious little buggers clean up the mess and are quickly back on their never-ending march to survive. I like to think that the leftovers provided by Bob and me form an important component of the ants’ life cycle. The truth is, of course, that Bob (or his descendants) and the ants will be getting along just fine long after Pa Rock has moved on.

There was a scientific article in the news last week on ants. It seems that a particular breed of ant that is native to Argentina has now migrated (thanks to humans) to every continent in the world except Antarctica. These Argentine ants form large colonies and have proven to be a pest to plants and animals. They have created one giant colony that stretches for 3,700 miles along the Mediterranean coast, as well as huge colonies in Japan, California, and other scattered locations.

Most junior high “scientists” know that if you mix ants from various colonies that fights will ensue. Ants are very territorial and can apparently recognize interlopers by the chemical smells that emanate from their cuticles.

Scientists who have been studying the Argentine ants were surprised to learn that they recognize (by cuticle smell, apparently) their cousins from overseas colonies - and tolerate them. It would appear, in fact, that these expansion-minded insects are forming a global presence much on the order of humans. Could it be that these invaders from South America are destined to be the next masters of the Earth?

A couple of years ago I was in the jungles of Guatemala visiting a recently excavated Mayan site. One of my most vivid memories of that experience took place in a large sandy area that was deeply shaded by tall trees and climbing vegetation. A large troop of ants were marching across the sun-dappled expanse of sand. In fact, it was a major highway of ants heading in two directions with both destinations hidden in the neighboring jungle growth. They marched along completely focused on their communal mission and unperturbed by the gaggle of tourists snapping pictures of their progress. The tourists had time to waste – the ants did not!

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