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Australian Ant

Australian Ant “The bloody bastard’s here!” That shout—uttered in October, 1977 by Australian entomologist Robert Taylor upon rediscovering the long-lost “Dinosaur ant,” Nothomyrmecia macrops, near the small town of Poochera on the Nullarbor Plain—marked the dramatic climax to a long-running myrmecological comedy of errors. An Australian who yearned to recover his country’s most notorious ant species, Taylor had studied with E. O. Wilson, Harvard’s famous ant-man, and he was on the hunt for the ant when his party’s vehicle broke down, despite being hundreds of miles from its only sighting. Preparing to camp out, Taylor had little hope of finding his quarry. Night had fallen and temperatures had dipped into the fifties, but he began poking around with a flashlight in the mallee (or eucalyptus) scrub and suddenly happened upon the most elusive of all Australian ants, a bizarre coincidence that forms only a part of the extraordinary lore of the species, told with great verve in Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration, by Bert Hölldobler and Wilson himself. First discovered in 1931 near the West Australia coastal town of Esperance by a party of amateur naturalists, the Nothomyrmecia macrops specimens were placed in jars of alcohol tied to the saddles of horses, but no one thought to make note of the locale. Ant specialists, including Wilson, repeatedly beat the bushes along the party’s route, having realized that the ant held out the tantalizing possibility of providing a “missing link” between social wasps and ants. After decades passed without finding it, experts feared that the species may have become extinct, until Taylor’s fortuitous nighttime foray. But the story does not end there. The tiny hamlet of Poochera—a grain belt town on the railway—became a kind of Lourdes of the insect world, with entomologists descending to pay their respects and study the strangely primitive ant, living in small colonies of under a hundred adults, scattering their eggs higgledy-piggledy on the nest floor and passing their lives in a remarkably solitary and unsociable manner, for ants. Unlike other such creatures, they do not work cooperatively. But not even fame could save the Poochera colony: The location where the ants had been found, after decades of searching, was bulldozed and burnt during the installation of underground telephone wires. Fortunately, since 1995, 17 additional locations have been found with populations of the species. Only two are in conservation areas. This extraordinarily rare and fragile species—listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN’s Red List—remains threatened by mallee clearing, fire, and embarrassing oversights like the telephone line installation. But the Threatened Species Scientific Committee has advised the Australian Minister for the Environment and Heritage that the ant is not eligible for inclusion on a list of threatened species under the Biodiversity Conservation of 1999. Why? Despite the best efforts of entomologists, who have canvassed 74 sites along the Eyre Peninsula, not enough is known to make the determination.
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