Nylanderia fulva

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I’m annoyed at this New York Times profile of the Nylanderia fulva invasion:

Even when the government did look straight at the ant, it didn’t know what it was looking at.

Tom Rasberry collected samples of the ant at the Pasadena chemical plant in 2003 and sent them off to a lab at Texas A&M to be identified. But taxonomy — the process of ordering living things into species — is arguably more an art than a science, and figuring out what species the ants were, and where they came from, quickly became vexing. Academics from other institutions swarmed in to debate, for example, the significance of four tiny hairs on the ant’s thorax. For years, they hurtled through a series of wrong answers, but the consensus eventually leaned toward a certain invasive ant, called Nylanderia pubens, which has been in Florida since the 1950s.

This is not accurate. Scientists did not, in fact, “swarm in to debate”. The slow response to identifying N. fulva was exactly the opposite. The trouble is that figuring out the origin of invasive ants isn’t anyone’s job. At least, not in the United States. What happened was that a few ant scientists, in their spare time from whatever their official duties were, have occasionally offered an opinion about these new invaders.

Exterminator Tom Rasberry, who discovered the invasion, sent specimens to Texas A&M. No one at Texas A&M has expertise to deal with Nylanderia. And of course they don’t. Our planet holds millions of insect species, and any one person can only master a few hundred. Experts on any particular group are few and widely dispersed. In fact, there are really only two people in the United States with appropriate experience to address the crazy ant problem: James Trager and John LaPolla.

James did his PhD on the taxonomy of these ants in North America in the 1980s, back when most species were still considered Paratrechina. He had even looked at an earlier incidence of crazy ants in Texas, and contra the New York Times’ insistence that only the Good Ol’ Exterminator boys in Texas had figured it out, James determined that the Texas and Florida ants were different species. Yet James never found taxonomic employment, and went on to work for the Missouri Botanical Garden as a staff naturalist. Ant identifications are not part of his job description. He does them now as a hobby.

John is part of the most recent team to work on Nylanderia, the one that actually located the South American origin of the invasion. He works in a primarily teaching position at Towson University, and like James, identifying invasive ants is not part of his job description. He is allowed to research what he wants to, and we are fortunate he picked up Nylanderia out of curiosity.

I don’t see the point of singling out the egghead scientists for being slow to identify Nylanderia fulva when the real trouble is bigger and structural. Americans simply don’t value basic research enough to support a system that rapidly pinpoints emerging pest problems.

If we want to quickly identify new pests, we need to salary thousands of positions for taxonomists where rapid response to emerging threats is part of the job. Instead, we’re doing the opposite. Taxonomists are being laid off. Congress is defunding science. The result is that when a new problem like invasive crazy ants arises, we depend on retirees and hobbyists to volunteer their expertise, if they want to. As a response to billion-dollar invasions, that’s just not good enough.