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SMALL WONDERS: Let Us Now Praise Tiny Ants

Leaf cutter ants (Atta cephalotes) carrying leaves, close-up

Intellectually, we can recognize that each scurrying dot is in fact a unique person with a complicated and interconnected life, even if distance appears to wipe away all that diversity and complexity.

BROOKE JARVIS: It is telling, the entomologist Eleanor Spicer Rice writes in her introduction to a new book of ant photography by Eduard Florin Niga, that humans looking downward on each other from great heights like to describe the miniaturized people we see below us as looking “like ants.” By this we mean faceless, tiny, swarming: an indecipherable mass stripped of individuality or interest.

Intellectually, though, we can recognize that each scurrying dot is in fact a unique person with a complicated and interconnected life, even if distance appears to wipe away all that diversity and complexity. So then why, Dr. Rice asks, don’t we apply the same logic to the ants we’re comparing ourselves to?

We share our world with at least 15,000 unique species of ants — although this is surely an underestimate, as we have no way to count the number of species still unknown to science. It is hard to express how ubiquitous they are. If you were to put all the animal life in a Brazilian rainforest on a scale, more than one-quarter of the weight would come just from ants…

There are many reasons to understand ants better. Whole ecosystems are built around them, and large numbers of species, from plants to beetles to birds, are “ant obligates,” meaning that they depend entirely on their relationships with ant colonies to survive. Winnow ants disperse so many herbaceous seeds in North America, Dr. Rice notes, that “removing them causes wildflower abundance to drop by 50 percent”…

If distance has kept us from really seeing the ants with which we share our world, Mr. Niga’s photographs in “Ants: Workers of the World” are an antidote. With macrophotography that shows every hair (a surprising amount of it), every spiracle (the pores in their exoskeletons through which ants breathe) and every facet of their compound eyes, the images replace our accustomed looking-down-from-a-skyscraper view with intimate, face-to-face portraits. We are longtime neighbors, belatedly introduced.

At this level, ants have such a wide variety of shapes and styles and faces that they quickly begin to feel not just like individuals, but like people. It’s hard not to anthropomorphize them, as when we meet Messor barbarus, a grain-eating ant with flattened mandibles and a scrunched-looking exoskeleton that gives it a face like a very old, kind man…

All these differences help us see ants as they really are: rich in diversity, earned over millions of years of evolution as they adapted to a world’s worth of habitats, ecosystems and survival strategies… The naturalist and author Edward O. Wilson discovered this early in his scientific career… Dr. Wilson has studied the world’s ants for most of his nine decades, examining the mysteries of their lives with a level of detail that is almost surely unmatched by any other human in history.

And yet when people talk about ants with this ambassador-slash-scout-slash-translator-of-alien-cultures, with his strange tales of creatures that have spent 150 million years building elaborate societies in nearly every habitable part of our world, he finds that they ask the same question over and over. “What,” they want to know, “do I do about the ones in my kitchen?”

He has a standard answer. Put out a bit of food, he tells people: A drop of honey, a bit of chopped nut. Then pay attention, when the ants come, as if you are on “an informal tour of a very foreign country.” Because you are. But you are also simply down at street level, finally meeting the neighbors. SOURCE…


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