Consider the ant: tiny and ubiquitous, and more commonly considered a pest than a wonder of the insect world.
Ants by the numbers are astonishing, with at least 14,000 different known species found almost everywhere on the planet. By some estimates, all the combined ants on earth would outweigh all the humans. They loosen soil, fertilize it, and help with the decomposition of plant and animal matter. It is a shame that many overlook them.
But not Assistant Professor of Biology Chris Moore, whose lab has the largest collection of ants from Maine in the world.
“I am humbled by and deeply admire ants,” he said. “I mean, really think about it for a moment: these nearly microscopic animals are, by most measures, the most successful animals to have ever lived. Ants have farmed for tens of millions of years, they arguably form the most complex societies after humans, and innumerable species ecosystems around the world are dependent upon ants for their existence.”
He and his students have been placing ant traps and studying ants in Maine for years, with an emphasis on learning more about the distribution of ant species across various height elevations.
This summer, they are adding more specimens to the collection by hiking into the verdant deciduous forest of Round Top Mountain in the Kennebec Highlands, and other locales, to set ant traps amid the leaf litter.
The simple traps, made up of covered plastic cups with holes punched into the sides, are baited with sweet antifreeze and buried in the ground. Ants find the bait irresistible, and Moore and his student researchers will return later in the season to collect the ants they’ve caught.
In addition to Round Top Mountain, they have set traps at Camden Hills State Park, Frye Mountain Wildlife Management Area in Waldo County, Mount Blue State Park in Weld, and Saddleback Ridge in the Rangeley area.
The students also broadened their knowledge of other insects, helping Moore pin insects for a collection he is putting together for the entomology course he will co-teach with Assistant Professor of Biology Suegene Noh in the fall.
Learning more about the tiny creatures who share the environment with us is fascinating and important, Moore said.
“Ants have burrowed their way into being a central, vital, and reciprocating part of the living world, which is perhaps a lesson they can even teach us.”
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