National Geographic

How To Fall In Love With Ants

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Some friends and I run a website called Download the Universe, where we review ebooks about science. Here is a review that I recently published that I thought would be of interest to readers of the Loom.

Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants. Text by Eleanor Spicer Rice. Photographs by Alex Wild. Available at The School of Ants. iPad or pdf. Free.

Many plants grow a thick coat around their seeds. The coat, called an elaiosome, doesn’t do the seed any good, at least directly. Its immediate job is to attract an insect known as the winnow ant. (The photo above shows winnow ants discovering blood root seeds.) The eliaosome releases fragrant odors that lure the ants, which then carry the seed into their nest. There the ants gnaw away at the seed’s coating but spare the seed itself. The ants then carry the shucked seed back out to the forest floor, where it germinates.

The winnow ant thus act like a gardener, caring for the plants. It protects the seeds from predators that would destroy them, and it spreads them far from their parent plant. Remove winnow ants from a forest, and its populations of wildflowers will shrink.

As a resident of the northeastern United States, I always assume that all the magnificent examples of coevolution must be going on somewhere else. The jungles of Ecuador, the Mountains of the Moon–these are the places where nature-film producers go to find species exquisitely adapted to each other. This, of course, just belies my far-less-than-complete education in natural history. While reading Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants, I discovered that winnow ants are abundant here in New England, along with the rest of the eastern United States. The next time I am out on a walk in the local woods, I’m going to keep an eye out for these elegant little insects.

Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants is itself an elegant little book–and an instructive example of how ebooks can become a tool in the growing citizen science movement. “Citizen science” typically refers to research that relies not just on a handful of Ph.D. researchers, but also on a large-scale network of members of the public. Birders have been doing citizen science for over a century, and now the Internet enables people to collaborate on many other projects, from mapping neurons in the eye to folding proteins to recognizing galaxies. Many of these projects yield solid scientific results (see this paper in Nature, with over 57,000 co-authors as an example). They also provide a new way for research to draw non-scientists into their world.

At North Carolina State University, biologist Rob Dunn and his colleagues have built a little empire of citizen science projects. I myself eagerly participated in his survey of the microbial life dwelling in the human belly button. (I’ve got 58 species, which turns out to be below average.) More recently, they’ve created a project they’ve dubbed The School of Ants. Here’s how they describe it:

The School of Ants project is a citizen-scientist driven study of the ants that live in urban areas, particularly around homes and schools. Teachers, students, parents, kids, junior-scientists, senior citizens and enthusiasts of all stripes are involved in collecting ants in schoolyards and backyards using a standardized protocol so that we can make detailed maps of the wildlife that lives just outside our doorsteps. The maps that we create with these data are telling us quite a lot about native and introduced ants in cities, not just here in North Carolina, but across the United States.

The School of Ants web site has plenty of information to help amateur ant hunters recognize the species trundling across a nearby sidewalk and then share their findings. But, like most web sites, it one works best as a sprawling reference. Its architecture doesn’t lend itself well to the sustained education required to become a backyard myrmecologist. For that experience, it’s hard to beat a book.

Hence, Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants. Eleanor Spicer Rice has written a 142-page introduction to these insects. She describes 13 common American species, such as the winnow ants, and also provides a general introduction to their biology. Rice writes for a young audience, but fortunately she doesn’t see that as an opportunity to write badly. Her style is clear, fluid, and engaging. (I’m fond of the way she described winnow ants as “rusty ballerinas.”)

The design and artwork in the book are also excellent. Neil McCoy created the book using iBook Author, Apple’s free software for making ebooks for the iPad. The design is clean, despite the fact it combines text, maps, photo galleries, and videos. I still use a first-generation iPad, waiting (or hoping?) for it to die, but it never struggled as it displayed the elements of Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants. What makes it especially lovely is the abundance of photographs by Alex Wild, the Ansel Adams of arthropods. The tiny size of the photo I included with this review doesn’t do justice to his work, but the large-scale format of his images on the iPad does.

I can quibble, but not for very long. This ebook is only available for iPad, for which I blame Apple, not McCoy. (You can get a pdf version, which lacks the galleries and video.) The ebook includes Google maps for each species, but they’re not interactive. Readers are instructed to go to the School of Ants web site for interactive versions, with no link on the page to take you there. But I can’t follow this line of grousing very long before I remember that this ebook is free (thanks to the support that the project gets from sources such as the Burroughs Wellcome Fund). I would have gladly paid for it. I heartily recommended it not just to people who want to join the School of Ants project, but anyone who wants to appreciate the miniature beauty and complexity of ants. And I hope that Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants inspires other citizen science projects to produce informative ebooks of their own.

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