The Missing Link In The Museum Of Natural History

PHOTOGRAPH BY ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/GETTY

PHOTOGRAPH BY ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/GETTY

Thanks to Alex Carp over at the New Yorker‘s website, and specifically the increasingly awesome Elements section, for keeping us up to date on the acquisitions at one of our favorite museums:

The insect collection at the American Museum of Natural History holds approximately sixteen million specimens, collected from some of the most remote corners of the world. But until earlier this year, the museum lacked a single ant from a place that scientists have traditionally neglected to look: the sidewalks and street medians of Manhattan. Almost by definition, natural science tends to begin its examination of wildlife only after travelling as far away from people as possible. “There’s this idea that when people come into an area, they make changes, and if you leave things alone then ecology actually happens,” Amy Savage, an ecologist at North Carolina State University, said recently. “But that puts people outside of the ecological process, which isn’t quite right.”

Last summer, Savage collected what would become the museum’s first sample of Manhattan street ants. Along with a parallel sample at North Carolina State, they are quite possibly the only New York street ants in a museum collection anywhere in the world. It’s a small step; there is still no established, comprehensive account of the ant species that live in many cities, including New York. The first definitive survey of ant species across Manhattan’s habitat, which Savage wrote, is currently under review for publication.

Savage, who is thirty-six, grew up in Montana, where she was “always one of those kids who was sitting in the outfield looking at the insects instead of watching the ball,” she said. She began her career as a tropical ecologist, conducting doctoral research in Samoa. “I thought if I could get to a removed-enough place, I would see what really happens, what real ecology is. And I went to the middle of the South Pacific, and still people were a key part of the ant story.” Savage found that, even away from the local villages, ants were more common in areas where people collected or stored fruits and plants. The largest population of the ant she had arrived to study, she realized later, was in a factory that made juice from the plant it liked to eat. “The truth is that we’re another species, and there’s no reason to separate us out and think of us as something that’s not ecology. When I realized that, I got to thinking about what that means for what’s right around us.”

After completing her dissertation, Savage joined a lab at North Carolina State that had an urban-ecology group already in place. For the past three years, usually during the summers, she has been lugging step ladders, temperature loggers, and aspirators—metal-and-plastic assemblies of tubes, piping, and a jar, to suck up individual ants off the dirt—across the city’s parks, sidewalks, and intersections, and up into street trees. The lab has been sending researchers for nearly a decade. They have discovered a handful of ants and other insects that were not known to live in New York, and have found that different species live on streets and sidewalks versus in the parks nearby.

On a recent Monday, Savage and a biologist named Clint Penick found themselves knee-deep in the bushes of Broadway, where they had climbed into a median just south of Lincoln Center. Penick, who is thirty-one, wrote his first scientific paper using research from his Florida back yard; in eighth grade, he played guitar in a band called the Army Ants. (“It was my middle-school mind’s version of what a punk band should be called,” he said.) He can identify some ants by smell…

Read the whole post here.

2 thoughts on “The Missing Link In The Museum Of Natural History

  1. Pingback: Libraries of Life | Raxa Collective

  2. Pingback: Undiscovered Species in Natural History Museums | Raxa Collective

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