Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Arizona: A Centre for Ants

Ants you say?
But you thought I was studying snails?

Well, I am still studying snails. I just happen to be in Arizona this week with another member of the lab looking for ants. Apparently, AZ is THE PLACE for cool ants.

It's not quite a random as it sounds. A couple of months ago, I got an offer to go along on a collecting trip with another student in the lab, as she couldn't go alone, and nobody else was going to be around. Not being one to turn down an all expenses paid trip, I signed up.

So far, we've been pretty successful. We're looking for one particular species of ant, Monomorium. They're very small, black ants that make their nests under small-ish rocks. We're interested in them, because it seems that for this species, colonies that live higher up in the mountains have queens that are able to fly, while the colonies at lower elevations produce queens that don't have wings, and so can't fly. This makes a difference to how much mixing there is between populations, and the potential to make new species, and also makes for some interesting developmental differences. How do the different types (with or without wings) actually come to be at the developmental level? And if they are all one species (and so have the same genetic machinery telling them how to make a queen), how do they decide to make wings or not to make wings?

We're here looking for high elevation colonies, so we've been spending a lot of time driving up into the mountains. When we get there, we turn over lots of rocks to collect whole colonies. The queens are especially important, as they are the only ones who reproduce in the colony (that's a whole other interesting story). We're also looking for larvae and embryos of the future reproductive ants -- future queens and males. Those are the ones that have wings, so my colleague is particularly interested in collecting those ones.

I've been having a lot of fun collecting ants. I think it's probably more fun to help with someone else's project, as you don't have to worry so much about what happens after you do the collecting. And as an added bonus, I'm learning some of the species names that everyone throws around the lab.

Oh, and eating lots of yummy Mexican food. Which is the *real* reason I wanted to come along.