Learning from the expert
Dr. Brian J. Fisher discusses his research at San Pedro Valley Park in Pacifica. Kyle Ludowitz / Pacifica magazine

It is bright summery day in Pacifica, the type of day that brings locals and visitors alike to the beaches, the trails and the pier. Down at San Pedro Valley Park, however, a room full of dedicated nature-lovers pack the Visitor Center to hear Dr. Brian L. Fisher speak about ants.

Known colloquially as the "Ant Man," Fisher was invited by the Friends of San Pedro Valley Park to speak about his life's work on critters most of us know only as pests. And from children wearing hats and scarves decorated with bright illustrations of bugs to their parents in matching gear, it appears everyone is captivated.

Fisher starts his talk by supposing that most people are introduced to ants as uninvited guests to their homes. Rather than the usual talk of how to get rid of ants, he wants everyone to know how fascinating they are.

"Don't get the poison out, " he says. "Put out a few cookie crumbs. You'll observe some amazing phenomena."

He would know. Fisher has a doctorate in ant systematics from the University of California Davis, and is currently chairman of entomology at the California Academy of Sciences. He is also adjunct professor of biology at both the University of California, Berkeley, and San Francisco State University. He travels the world — including to Madagascar — in pursuit of his research. Of the roughly 30,000 ant species currently known, he has identified more than 1,000, most from his work in Madagascar. He even has a genus of ants named after him: Fisheropone.

In the field
Dr. Brian J. Fisher collects insects during one of his trips to Madagascar. Photo courtesy Dr. Brian J. Fisher

Ants have four different growing stages: the egg, the larva, the pupa and the adult. A queen ant is generally the mother to all of the ants in the colony. Her job is to mate with male drones and lay eggs, which the (sterile) worker ants care for. Worker ants also forage for food and defend the nest from unwanted visitors. When a worker ant finds a source for food, it leaves behind a trail of scent to attract other ants that then help carry the food back to the nest. This is where it gets interesting.

"We call ants superorganisms,” Fisher explains. “They have a collective intelligence, form networks to share information, and make decisions on the fly.” An ant brain has about 250,000 brain cells compared to a human brain, which has 10,000 million. A colony of 40,000 ants therefore collectively has the same size brain as a human. It’s important to think of ants in that collective fashion.

“An individual ant is not the organism,” says Fisher who then invites the audience to imagine being an ant. “You’ve been walking around all day. You’re hungry and you’ve just found a nice juicy caterpillar. It’s pretty heavy, but that’s not a problem. You’re an ant so you’re used to carrying things much heavier than your own size.”

The problem, it turns out, is that the ants we see walking around can’t eat. They’re not nibbling at the cookie crumbs in your kitchen — they’re carrying them back to the larvae. “That’s the stomach of the colony,” Fisher says, explaining that’s why it’s impossible to think of ants as individuals. They need each other to survive. The larvae have solid jaws they use to process the food. They then regurgitate that processed food to a few worker ants who drink the juice into their “social stomachs.” Hungry worker ants use their antennae to communicate their hunger to the workers with the juice, who promptly squirt the liquid out. “Food is transferred sister to sister. It’s a very sophisticated system.”

Fisher estimates that there at least 50 species of ants around the San Mateo County coast. “California has over 300 species,” he says, “but that’s nothing like what we have in the tropics.” His initial goal while working in Madagascar was to catalog all the different ants there with an eye toward creating a Dow Jones type of index for the environment that could be monitored and understood in real time. “We want to be able to understand our impact on biodiversity there, how society and humans are impacting the environment.”

Over the last 20 years, Fisher and his team has visited more than 450 localities across the island, inventorying the insects and shipping them off to about 180 taxonomists over the world. They also started training groups in Madagascar to help process the family, genus and species of their specimens. “We now have a center that was built by private donations from the Bay Area called Madagascar Biodiversity Center,” says Fisher. “Through the center we’re continuing our project of research, education and conservation.”

The conservation piece is important. Due to increasing demands from a growing population, the forests that house so many unique animals and insects are being cleared to make way for cattle farms. The problem is not an easy one to solve and is hardly limited to Madagascar. It took Fisher a while to realize that a promising solution was right in front of him at the local markets — in the form of insects. Historically, Madagascar was the only country that never had hunger or famine because, when the locusts came, the people would gather them up, dry and grind them, and add the protein-rich powder to their rice.

Working with local nutritionists as well as other experts, the team is exploring how to farm edible insects that can help against deforestation as well as feeding the hungry. It’s a fascinating concept — eating insects to preserve the world of insects — and altogether understandable when exploring the sheer diversity of ant species. (The island supports Dracula ants, slave-raiding ants, and even ants turned zombie by a pernicious fungus).

So, next time you see an ant in your home, give up some crumbs of your cookie. Maybe even a slice of pizza. The insight you gain just might be worth it.

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