by Jovel Queirolo, ’14
Every great scientist in history and the Pogonomyrmex Barbatus species of ant, often referred to in my lab as Pogos, have two things in common. They have always relied heavily on their peers in their respective fields – whether that is a field of science or a field of desert grass and mesquite.
This summer, I watched and participated in collection of data about the Pogos. Every morning I woke up sometime between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. (depending on the day’s assignment) to eat a small breakfast of yogurt, granola, and coffee usually while blinking awake with my fellow field researchers. We then drove from our mountain research station about 30 minutes to watch the sunrise and arrive at the research site.
The first ants to leave the nest mound are the patrollers who tuck their abdomens down and drowsily mark paths with their colony scent. How and which way they decide to go is a mystery. About an hour (and an increase of 20 degrees Fahrenheit) later my team and I begin to sweat as we check for foraging behavior. We watch for foragers to file out of their nest, detect the path laid before them by the patrollers, and speed off with complete and total confidence in the scent laid before them by their fellow patrollers.
How do they know when to go? How do they know to follow the scent of their colony’s patrollers and not another colony’s patrollers? Is their behavior determined by some kind of genetic phenomenon? How can these small seemingly mindless ants maintain such complex networks of communication within and among colonies?
A few hours later I stop wondering, and focus more on not stepping on patches of tall grass where rattlesnakes might be waiting for a taste of my ankles (which I’ve covered with a sock pulled over my pant legs to keep the ants from crawling up and into my pants), taking regular sips of water, squinting into the distance for any sign of my team. My peers. My fellow foragers. And it hits me. As we mill around the field site, getting slower as the ants do as the sun gets higher, it hits me like an unsuspecting ant slamming into one of her nest-mates on a busy foraging trail.
No matter how intimidating introductory chemistry courses can feel, no matter how the corporate science empire twists science into a race to discover one gene in one type of cell that could change medicine forever, science will never exist without dependence. We exemplify humanity’s struggle to collaborate, and we owe it to ourselves to apply this desire to learn from and build on one another.
After a nap, we gather in the lab to type in our data, to wonder how the rain will affect the next day’s foraging. Back at the field site, it’s hard to say, but I like to imagine the ants are doing the same thing. I couldn’t tell you how, but I’m willing to bet that like us they haven’t quite perfected their method of cooperation either. They don’t have a solid understanding of the dynamic environment in which they live. But they survive in one of the most unforgiving, undeveloped desert environments in the world. And we are faced with surviving on an increasingly unforgiving planet.
As science meets the 21st century’s obsession with capitalist ladder-climbing and corporate greed, let us not forget that all groundbreaking scientists – from Mendel to McClintock – all had patrollers before them marking a path and foragers beside them pushing them along. If patrollers actively deceived or disadvantaged their foraging nest mates, the colony would die. It isn’t enough for one ant to succeed and for the others to fail.
The next morning, they’re up to their same routine, perhaps not exactly but close enough for me to notice a pattern they don’t want me to forget. A pattern of collaboration woven into networks of thin tunnels only a few inches below my dust-covered hiking-boot-clad feet.
A unity so simple in its complexity.
Jovel Queirolo is a junior from the San Francisco Bay Area majoring in Biology. She is interested in the intersections of the sciences and the humanities–particularly the patterns and themes that emerge and reoccur in both. Through reflection, public service, and activism she envisions a world invested in social healing and wellbeing.