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The fascinating world of ants

Visiting professor: James Wetterer gains information through fieldwork. He has been to 118 countries to study ants (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

Bermuda has extraordinarily few ants compared to most places.

This comes from scientist and ant researcher Jim Wetterer, who is on the island for the second time observing our ant population.

He clarifies: “There just aren’t that many species.”

In his 2004 paper, he documented 20 ant species from Bermuda. Since then, he’s increased the list to 25, including three new finds so far this trip.

“There are 14,000 described ant species right now and a lot more undescribed,” he explained.

“In Bermuda the ants you’re going to find in any one spot are going to be one of two species.”

The species he’s referring to are the Big Headed Ant from Africa and the Argentine ant, which he described as “completely incompatible”.

The tropical and subtropical species battle for dominance on the island and “right now the subtropical one is winning,” he said.

The visiting professor will be giving a lecture at The Aquarium tomorrow entitled: ‘Them! World domination by ants’, “a talk for the layman”.

A professor at Florida Atlantic University; his research interest is the biogeography, ecology, and environmental impact of ants, but Dr Wetterer began his career studying fish.

He first worked on ants in 1984, after completing his master’s, PhD, and first postdoctoral studying fish,.

“Doing some small projects on load size selection to test an economic model I made, I quickly collected more data than I had in years studying fish,” he said. “I decided to switch.”

“I hated working in a lab. I like wading out in the red mangroves. When it’s pouring rain and I’m soaking wet, I’m just fine.”

Typically gaining his information through fieldwork, Dr Wetterer worked for several years studying leaf-cutting ants, primarily in Costa Rica.

He has been to 118 countries to study ants. This year, he is on sabbatical and has booked trips to 20 countries so far.

He specialises in island ants, studying all over the Pacific, the Atlantic and, for the past 13 years primarily in the West Indies and has an ant named after him — the Megalomymex Wettereri, a neotropical, parasitic ant. Hi newest focus is the mangroves.

Armed with a handy map that highlights the island’s red mangroves given to him by BAMZ’s Robbie Smith, the scientist has been collecting bags of sticks, hoping to find other undiscovered species hiding in the twigs.

“The mangroves appear to be a refuge for the ants to stay away from the dominant ants,” he said.

“Most of the ants here are worldwide tramp species, spread around the world. There are a few ants that may be native to Bermuda, but the only way to know would be through genetics, which nobody has ever done.”

His daughter Sarah, is unfazed by the bags of sticks that fill a corner of their guest room. The 17-year-old recalls more cramped conditions in cruise ship cabins that were forced to accommodate his findings.

She has travelled all around the world with her father and will accompany him this year as she studies for her SATs. The 57-year-old, father of three, said his unusual career has given him endless opportunity to travel.

“I’m not very good at being a tourist. I like collecting ants better than visiting temples,” he said, laughing about the pair’s recent stop in China.

“I’ve collected ants from Christopher Columbus’s house in Madeira. It’s like a worldwide treasure hunt.”

Ants can be found everywhere, but Antarctica — “an inappropriate name”, he added.

His fascination is a huge contrast to the general populous of people dying to get rid of them.

He said: “They pick up the garbage.

“We’d be knee-deep in dead everything if ants weren’t keeping the place tidy.

“But that’s not why I study them. I study them because life is short and I enjoy doing this.”