March on desk brings protection-- for tribe of ants

October 16, 1990|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- As president of the World Wildlife Fund, Kathryn Fuller is accustomed to preaching the gospel of preservation for creatures great and small, whether they live in the Pacific Northwest or the Amazon Basin.

But for her next crusade, she need look no further than the top of her desk.

There among a clutter of paperwork, crawling and fidgeting, are the antenna-waving workers and warriors of what may be a rare tribe indeed: Ants. And not just any ants. These tiny, brownish-yellow foragers are apparently members of a species never before noted by scientists, and the desktop procession is only the advance guard of a colony of thousands living a few feet away in the soil of a giant potted plant.

Credit Ms. Fuller herself for holding building maintenance exterminators at bay, and credit Harvard University zoology professorE. O. Wilson, a worldwide authority on ants, with the tentative identification of the species.

"It's an unusual species," Mr. Wilson said. "It may well be a new type. . . . We usually only turn them up in rain forests and deserts, but this is a case where we turned them up in the office of the president of the World Wildlife Fund."

Ms. Fuller first noticed the ants about 15 months ago, meandering across her desk near her phone. Many people would have reacted with a blitzkrieg of smushing, and a co-worker offered to call maintenance to come up for a quick spray.

Ms. Fuller would have no part of it. "I like ants," she said. "I like invertebrates. I studied marine invertebrates."

So the ants stayed, and were still there a month later when Mr. Wilson happened to be visiting for a meeting about the Wildlife Fund's science program. He was just finishing work on a huge, glossy book, called "The Ants," and she asked him to take a look at the specimens in her office.

"He said, 'Well my goodness, these appear to be ants from the genus Pheidole, on which I'm writing my monograph," Ms. Fuller reported. And he discovered others, crawling from the floor to the desktop on her phone line, apparently journeying

from a potted Dracaena plant to hunt for the crumbs of her frequent desktop lunches.

The professor put a few of the worker ants in a vial, and returned to his laboratory in Boston. A few hours after his return, he phoned Ms. Fuller to say that the species might be new. Could she send him some soldier specimens as well, he asked?

She put a few droplets of sugar water on her desk to attract them, and, "Indeed, within 20 minutes, along with the tiny, tiny ants were

some ants twice as big with darker heads." She scooped up a few and sent them off to Harvard.

Three weeks later he announced to the Fund's board of directors that the ants seemed to be a new species, and now the question is simply a matter of waiting for final verification from the scientific community, which may take several more months. Since then, she has the ants living in luxury, with a supply of cookies, cheese, sugar water and other tidbits.

The ants, Mr. Wilson said, likely came to the office on the plant, which is native to Central America, and their discovery on the fifth floor of a downtown Washington office building shows how little we know about the vast but tiny world of insects.

For Ms. Fuller, the ants have provided a pleasant break.

"I spend an awful lot of my time thinking about macro issues of conservation, like debt and the budget," she said. "It is enormously refreshing to have at least one part of my work now truly at the grass-roots."

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