Ant specimens from Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology (Photo: Christine Fichera)
Stefan Cover likes ants. He likes them so much that he’s made a living collecting and caring for them. He’s the curator for Harvard University’s ant collection – the largest collection of preserved ants in the world. And to hear him speak, his arthropod specimens seem more human than ant-like. Reporter Sean Cole pays a visit to the ant scientist.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. On the fourth floor of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, lives perhaps the largest collection of preserved ant specimens in the world. The person normally associated with this array is acclaimed biologist and biodiversity champion E.O. Wilson, who has won the Pulitzer prize writing about ants. But the day to day maintenance of the Harvard ant collection is the responsibility of Stefan Cover, whose relationship with his subjects of study tends to range beyond the formal boundaries of science. Producer Sean Cole has our story.
COLE: When I first set foot in the ant room I got a headache. The air was heavy with this overpowering... sciencey smell. At first I thought it was formaldehyde. But it wasn't. It was...
COLE: This is Stefan Cover, curatorial assistant of entomology at Harvard. He says mothballs, or naphthalene, keep hungry, preying beetles from eating his ant specimens the same ways it keeps moths away from your sweaters. There are 50 pounds of naphthalene flakes tucked away in the gray metal cabinets of this room. But Stefan told me he's been working here so long he can't even smell it anymore. Then he stuck his nose directly into a little white jewelry box full of naphthalene.
COLE: You can stick your nose in that!
COVER: Yeah. Yeah oh yeah, I'm immune. Either that or I'm, like, on my way out.
(Photo: Christine Fishera)
COLE: Actually Stefan looks extremely well-preserved for his 50-some-odd years. His face is almost cherubic, framed by silver-rimmed glasses and thick waves of salt and pepper hair. He spends ten hours a day in this room, a virtual city of cabinets stacked with drawer after drawer of specimens. Maybe a million ants, each of them lovingly labeled and mounted to its own slim, metal pin.
COVER: I can mount a hundred or a hundred fifty ants a day and that's it. And here we're talking I've got a backlog of hundreds, hundreds of thousands. So I'm never gonna get this done. So you become a fatalist when you do collection work, you know. Sometimes you don't even know why you persist.
COLE: As we ambled around the room, Stefan would occasionally pull out a drawer and we'd gaze down at ant carcasses arranged into these neat, toy-soldier brigades. If you think an ant is an ant is an ant, you're wrong. They range in size, shape, color, culture and temperament about as widely as we do. If not more. Stefan showed me ants both terrifyingly large and infinitesimal. Some had wings. Most didn't. Some were almost beautiful. Others were armed with huge stingers on one end.
COVER: Yeah, these are ants from a canopy fogging study in Panama.
COLE: There's tiny ones in here.
COVER: Oh, and here's paraponera. You see paraponera.
COLE: Oh yeah yeah.
COVER: Was... was...
COLE: Was the ant he almost let sting him in Costa Rica.
COVER: In 1979, when I was a dumb graduate student, I went to Costa Rica and did a scientific survey of the ant bites of Costa Rica. And I got variously nailed by all kinds of ants and was sort of trying to figure out who was the worst. But there was an ant in Costa Rica and in much of South America called paraponera. The Costa Ricans call it the bala, which I think means spear. And so I got to that one and I was about to let it bite me and someone said, someone from Costa Rica said, “I wouldn't do that if I were you. That's the ant that makes grown men weep.” (LAUGHS) And I said, all right, that's the end of this ant biting survey. Forget it.
COLE: As well as mounting the ants, Stefan also spends his day helping grad students find their way around the collection. He boxes up specimens to be mailed out on loan to researchers around the world. He identifies ants that laypeople send him, along with letters that say things like, "I found this in my kitchen. What is it?" And he'd probably deny this, but he's also something of an ant world phenom. He's discovered about 40 different species of ants on his annual excursions out west, 40 species that science didn't know about. And the main reason he does all this, he says, is because people are still asking the question…
COVER: What good are ants, you know? To which I'm always tempted to respond, well, what vital role are you playing in the maintenance of the universe? You know, besides taking up space? And in actual fact, we all have a role to play in the world. Ants have a role to play in the world that's completely independent of whether they make us happy or not. And ants actually are incredibly important in the natural world.
COLE: The main thing ants do, Stefan says, is break down dead organic matter into little nutrients so plants have something to eat, so we in turn can eat the plants or eat the animals that eat the plants. Stefan says ants and us are both links in the same chain. And the ant link is crucial.
COVER: If ants suddenly said, wait a minute, we're not getting any appreciation here. You know, no wages, no benefits, plus grief. They spray us with Raid, you know, and all this, and they said, we're going on strike. If ants went on strike it would have a dire effect on human society. You could actually speculate how long human society would continue to be recognizable in its present form. And answers might vary. But I'll tell you five years is a long shot.
COLE: And as well as being indispensable, Stefan says ants are endlessly entertaining. Their society works a lot like ours does, he says. So sometimes it seems like they were created to parody human beings. And sometimes, Stefan says, human beings seem like they were created to parody ants.
COVER: So, for example, ants make slaves. Some ants sneak into other ants' nests and sponge off the owners. Some ants keep other insects much the same way we keep domesticated animals. And it just, the list just goes on and on. Ants fight wars. And for just about as good reasons as we do too, you know? I mean, just meaningless violence is common in the ant world.
COLE: The thing is, not all ants do all this stuff. Different species exhibit different behaviors, vastly different behaviors. Researchers estimate that there are 20,000 or so different species of ants on the planet, only half of which have been discovered and named. The ant collection at Harvard contains only 36 or 37 hundred different species, with multiple examples of each one.
COVER: I'll just show you a few pictures that we've taken. Isn't that a gorgeous beast? That's the matamermex. It's a specialized ponerine ant of the South American tropics. And see, it has these beautiful long pitchfork-like mandibles. And it turns out we didn't know this for years, but it's a specialist predator of a certain family of millipedes. Doesn't eat anything else other than these millipedes, and it uses these, these pitchfork-like mandibles to catch them so it can hold them while stinging and paralyzing the millipede. Another interesting specimen we have here is this one...
COLE: Stefan's ant life began one bored summer when he was a kid growing up in New York City. He was scratching around for something to do and made the seminal discovery that if you put two ants of different colors together in a peanut butter jar, they'll fight. And that sealed it. Soon came the ant books and the ant farms. And then one late night when he was lying awake in bed, his mother called down to his room, telling him to turn on the Long John Nebel radio show.
COVER: And so I turned on this radio talk show. And there was a graduate student from the American Museum of Natural History named Howard Topoff who was talking about ants. He talked about ants until 5 a.m. I listened to the entire thing. It was fascinating. And the next day I wrote him a letter, as only an 11-year-old kid can write. You know, which is like, "Dear Mr. Topoff, so you like ants. I like ants too. I have ants in my backyard. Some are red. Some are brown." And so on, immortal prose. But I didn't think that an actual scientist would write back to a kid. I mean, hey, I knew I was a kid. So a week later an envelope arrives from the Museum of Natural History, and I'm terrorized. I'm horrified. A scientist, an actual scientist, has written back to me.
COLE: But Howard Topoff hadn't just written back. In that letter, Topoff was inviting Stefan to volunteer at the Museum of Natural History as a lab assistant. Now, as you've probably already guessed, Stefan was a bit of a shy-bones back then. He was terrified, terrified of meeting an actual scientist. His father, however, was not.
COVER: So he dragged me to the American Museum, walked down a long hallway. He finds the office door, and we look in there and there's this nice bearded young gentleman sitting in there. He says, "you Howard Topoff?" And he says yes. He said, “well, here's the kid.” And he slings me in the door and shuts the door on me.
COLE: Stefan got over his shyness when he found out working in the museum meant a day off from school. Besides which, he says, something about the work itself transformed him into Mr. Confident. He was tending Topoff's ant colonies, going on collecting expeditions with him. It was one of his luckiest breaks, the same kind of luck that led him to his current job. In 1986, shortly after an aborted stint at grad school, Stefan moved up to Cambridge hoping to gain access to Harvard University's ant collection. It was Christmas week and the campus was empty. But eventually he ran into a student named Mark Moffit, and asked him for keys to the collection.
COVER: And Mark said, "Oh," he said, "I can't do that. Only Dr. Wilson can give you keys to the ant collection." And I said, well, what should I do? And he said, give me your phone number and I'll have him call you up. And I thought, “oh my goodness, curses, foiled again!” I said, “you know, E.O. Wilson is not going to call up me. You know?” But I gave him the number and I went back home. And two days later the phone rings, and this voice comes over the line and says, "Stefan, I'm Ed Wilson. Mark Moffit tells me you want keys to the ant collection." Well, I almost fainted.
COLE: Wilson asked Stefan if he had any museum experience. We can't just let anybody into the ant collection, he said.
COVER: And I said, well, “when I was a kid I worked for the American Museum of Natural History.” And then I said it. Out it came. Then I said, “plus I mount an ant like Michelangelo chisels marble.”
COLE: You didn't say that.
COVER: I said it. And I couldn't believe it. It was one of those things where I said, “Oh, I can't believe it! I can't believe I said that!” Oh! If it was like casting a fishing line I would have been trying to reel it in, you know.
COLE: In the end, Wilson invited Stefan back over to Harvard. Stefan brought a box of his ant specimens with him. And when Wilson saw that a lot of Stefan's ants hadn't been discovered yet by anyone but Stefan, he gave him a set of keys there and then. That was 18 years ago. And Stefan's been working in the ant room ever since.
COVER: Yeah, here's a common one in the forests of eastern North America. It's called lasius umberatus.
COLE: Along with all the new specimens he's found in the southwest, Stefan discovered one in a state forest in Plymouth, Massachusetts, about ten years ago. New species, by the way, are the Holy Grail of ant researching, the most fun a researcher can have. Discovering something no one knew existed, figuring out what genus it comes from, giving it a species name. I asked Stefan what he called the ant he found in Plymouth.
COVER: Oh, I haven't named it yet, and this is very bad news. It's on the back burner. It will be described, but I haven't published the description yet.
COLE: Why not just name it after yourself?
COVER: Oh that's considered extremely bad form in science. You do not name species after yourself. And so if you want a species named after you, you have to get one of your pals to do it.
COLE: Of course, in Stefan's case, one of those pals is famed ant researcher E.O. Wilson. In his study of the ant genus pheidole, Wilson found more than 300 new species and named one of them...
COVER: Pheidole coveri.
COLE: Coveri being Stefan's last name with an "i" on the end. This is how scientists turn English into Latin.
COVER: So Dr. Wilson, for example, has a cockroach named after him. It's a genus of cockroaches, not a species. And the genus is E.O. Wilsonia. [LAUGHS]
COLE: You learn an awful lot about ants spending time with Stefan. For instance, he told me most ants are girls. It sounds terribly outmoded, but the ants that do most of the work around the colony are female. The few male ants hanging around are basically just there to inseminate the queen. Also, ants evolved from wasps. There's some argument as to whether they're once or twice removed from their wasp cousins, but Stefan says ants are essentially wasps-without-wings, adapted for life on the ground.
COVER: Ants of course would argue that they're new and improved wasps, and I wouldn't criticize them on that score. But that’s, fundamentally they just are wasps.
COLE: You say that as though they've told you this personally.
COVER: Well...well, you know, um...it's either too much naphthalene over time makes you dotty, or else you can't work. When you work with organisms of a group for a long time it's not actually off the radar screen to say that there's a communication process between...you know, between...you and the critters.
COLE: And this is the thing you learn about Stefan when you hang around with Stefan. Most of us carry around a mental catalogue of the characteristics that make us human. But to Stefan, a lot of those characteristics aren't ours alone. His mind isn't as human-centric as that. So sometimes he ends up talking about ants in the same way he talks about people.
COVER: Well, I do because...because... ants and other forms of life are beings. Now what on Earth does that mean? They're beings the same way we are. That doesn't mean they have our kind of consciousness. That doesn't mean that they worry about their stock portfolios. But they're beings, they're not...they're not like rocks. And we human beings, we relate to beings.
Ants experience, and I'm certain of this, they experience pleasure and fear and pain. And you can't not know that if you spend a lot of time with them. You can't not know that. You do find yourself reacting to them in part as objects of scientific study, but also in part as acquaintances, you know, and hopefully friends, really. You know. And, you know, if that makes some people nervous, well, let 'em, you know. That's the truth.
COLE: This might sound insane, but spending three hours in a room full of dead ants was pretty humbling. We go through life thinking of this as our world, as the place the humans live, and that our concerns as humans have universal meaning. But that just isn't true. Not if you start to let ants creep into the equation. Regimes change, governments rise and fall, and all the while there's this whole, separate, intricate society scurrying around our feet that could care less. As I said to Stefan, they don't even know we're there.
COVER: No, they don't, but, but, the thing that has to be said is, we don't know that they're there either. See, we think we're so smart. Now here's another great thing about ant collections and insect collections in general. This is an ant that was collected at dinner with Joseph Stalin in 1945 by Professor Harlow Shapely. He was at dinner in the Soviet Union at this banquet in 1945, and an ant ran across the table and he pulled a vial out and filled it up with vodka and shoved it in the vial and it's now here.
COLE: Oh my god. That little vial with the pink top?
COVER: Yeah, see it's a very unprepossessing smallish beast, but nonetheless it's of historical significance. How could you possibly, you know, how could I, as a curator, possibly get rid of an ant that was collected at dinner with Joe Stalin. You know?
COLE: Bow down to the ants of the earth my friends. They've seen more than we have. They're just smart enough to keep quiet about it. For Living on Earth, I'm Sean Cole in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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