Inside the Scramble to Make a Half-Million Ants Feel at Home

When the American Museum of Natural History’s new insectarium opens on May 4, a half-million leafcutter ants will share the title of star attraction.

The ants are organic marvels, dwelling in huge colonies that operate as a single superorganism. They are subtle farmers, accumulating leaves that they use to nurture sprawling fungal gardens, which offer meals for the colony.

Creating the new leafcutter exhibit was a six-year journey that took the museum’s group — and the ants — from a farm in Trinidad, the place the tangerine-size colony was collected, to a lab in Oregon, the place it grew massive sufficient to fill a bathtub, after which on a six-day drive throughout the nation in a U-Haul van.

And that wasn’t even the onerous half. The ants, which moved into their museum habitat in January, have been sluggish to alter to their new residence, failing to harvest sufficient leaves to maintain their fungal gardens.

“We’ve had a few ups and downs,” mentioned Hazel Davies, the museum’s director of dwelling displays. “Some problem-solving, as we anticipated, as a result of it is a fairly distinctive exhibit.”

Here’s how the museum finally helped the ants discover their means.

To put the ants’ agriculture on show, the museum designed a sprawling, open exhibit created from lab-tested, “ant-approved” supplies, from braided chrome steel to old style Legos. “The ants obtained to choose a lot of stuff,” mentioned Ryan Garrett, a self-described “ant wrangler” and founding father of Leaf House Scientific who collected the ant colony and served as a advisor on the habitat.

The design had the ants tending to their fungal gardens in glass orbs after which touring an bold route to acquire their leaves, crossing a clear skybridge upside-down and clambering over aluminum poles.

The group stocked the foraging space with blackberry bramble and stuffed the surrounding moat with water to assist preserve the ants contained.

Then, they loaded the ant-filled orbs, which had been quickly plugged with balls of Play-Doh, into the exhibit. (A hand-held vacuum was deployed to acquire ants that had ventured out of the orbs to forage, sucking the bugs up into “a pleasant twister,” Mr. Garrett mentioned.)

They unplugged the orbs and waited for the ants to discover their means, a course of they anticipated to take at least a number of days.

It took weeks. Some ants rapidly made their means up to the skybridge and even down to the ant freeway main in direction of the foraging space, however there they appeared to stall. “We knew it was a large ask,” Ms. Davies mentioned. “It’s such as you heading downtown to search for groceries, however not being instructed the place to go.”

The group wanted simply a small subset of ants to blaze the path; When the first ants returned from the foraging space, they would go away a pheromone path that their sisters may observe. The museum started coaxing the ants ahead by laying down a path of apples and leaves.

But quickly one other downside emerged: The gallery, which was nonetheless beneath building, was too dry for the tropical ants. So a humidifier was put in behind the exhibit, funneling moisture into the show case.

The ants’ path was simplified, a rope strung throughout the skybridge so the ants would not have to cross it upside-down. Another shortcut allowed the ants to bypass a few of the aluminum poles.

By mid-April, strains of ants had begun parading leaves again to their orbs. “It felt like the ants have been celebrating,” Mr. Garrett mentioned.

There is extra work to do. The ants have probably not taken to the braided metallic that appeared so promising in the lab, they usually preserve falling into the moat. Mr. Garrett just lately original a momentary “ant filter” from blackberry branches to assist the bugs climb out.

But the group has now eliminated the large shortcuts, nudging the ants alongside tougher paths. Just days in the past, the ants lastly accomplished the total route and even started winding their means throughout an elevated maze detour.

“I do know everybody needed the ants to simply stroll straight to the foraging jungle, however I feel this strategy of them slowly determining their means is actually lovely,” Mr. Garrett mentioned. “Day by day we watch them study.”

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