“Never judge an ant at first glance,” warns Dr. Eleanor Spicer Rice, myrmecologist and head of the School of Ants project.
Meet Forelius pruinosus. At first glance, it may seem a little unimpressive, even underwhelming. However, the more you learn about Forelius, the more you realize there’s more to it than meets the antennae. For one, they’re masters of climate and can survive just as well in the arid desert as it can in your kitchen or bathroom. Surprisingly, they also smell good. These ants secrete an odorous alarm pheromone that attracts their nestmates, a trait that comes in handy when they’re in danger. Forelius are known to be light on their feet as well. When faced with conflict or danger, they shake their bodies and communicate with others by dancing.
Believe it or not, Forelius has yet to acquire a common name, as common as it is in the household and beyond. That’s why Your Wild Life is holding a competition to name it! They’ve taken submissions from all over (museums, science events, online) and received a plethora of creative suggestions–from “Fancy Ant” to “Lady Gaga” and everything in between!
Here are the top four contenders for Forelius‘ common name. Visit the special voting page to pick your favorite! Hurry, the deadline is April 30, 2013!
1. Barricade Ant – Forelius pruinosus use chemical defenses and elaborate teamwork to barricade the colony openings of ants four times larger than themselves during foraging.
2. Blockade Ant – F. pruinosus does not allow other ants to leave their nests if they’ve found something delicious nearby; they surround their competitors’ nest and shoot chemicals out of their butts!
3. High-Noon Ant – F. pruinosus have been described as thermophilic, or heat-loving, and are typically the only ants actively foraging at noon when the sun is at its highest. This is one of the best ways for ant scientists to collect them – go out at the hottest part of the day and you’ll even be likely to find a F. pruinosus!
4. Highway Ant – F. pruinosus forms thick trails as they forage during the day, they form wide ant highways as they travel from a food source back to their nest.
You can view a compilation of all the creative suggestions on the text map below. Click for the interactive version!
You might wonder, why bother with picking a common name at all? “Who would want to talk about Forelius when they could talk about ants that had way more interesting common names like carpenter ants, thief ants or big-headed ants?” emphasizes Holly Menninger, who manages the naming competition for Your Wild Life. What she means is that when something has a common name, it becomes more accessible to people. Sometimes science can be a bit esoteric, even intimidating. However, Your Wild Life has made finding a name for Forelius a democratic process, open to any and all who want to participate: “I think people like to be heard, to have their opinions and ideas make a difference – I think that’s why lots of folks are attracted to voting contests.”
(In this post on the PLOS blog, Caren Cooper also expounds on the importance of common nomenclature, with a nod toward Your Wild Life’s naming contest.)
So far, the contest has attracted a spectrum of participants–from kids at the kindergarten level to retired seniors. Menninger says, “Our big goal at Your Wild Life is to engage the public in the study and appreciation of the biodiversity in their daily lives. Specifically with respect to ants, we want folks to learn a little bit about their tiny 6-legged neighbors, the ants who wander about their backyards and playgrounds.”
This project is a testament to how citizen scientists can make a lasting impact on scientific research–whether the impact originates from a source as large as a whale or tiny as an ant.
Want even more critter-friendly citizen science projects? Check out these exciting projects from our Project Finder!
Photos: SchoolofAnts.org, YourWildLife.org