Parasitic Ants Shake Up Colony Society

"We'll watch to see if she zooms right for the nest, or if she wanders around, or if she's killed when she tries to get into the nest," Herbers says. "We don't know any of that stuff."

By the end of next summer, she hopes to have a few more answers than she has now. But, one may wonder, why all this fuss over a bunch of ants so small you almost need a magnifying glass to see them?

"The biology is absolutely fascinating," she says.

There is, of course, more to all of this than just a bunch of little ants.

"This kind of work can actually tell us a great deal about how parasites evolve, and parasites include things like rabies and anthrax and so on. It's a way to easily study parasite movement in ways that might extend to other models," she says.

Many parasitic relationships are extremely harmful, such as diseases in which a parasite takes up residence in a human body.

"Malaria is a good example of that," Herbers says. "Malaria changes its outer coat every couple of months, and that's why we cannot easily develop vaccines against it. They are constantly shedding their proteins and manufacturing new ones.

"So once the malaria parasite gets into your blood stream it multiplies quickly and it can kill you," she adds.

But she rejects any suggestion that she's hot on the trail of a cure for malaria.

She is, after all, an ant freak.

"Mostly, we're studying minutissimus just because they are so downright cool," she says.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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