Crazy ants, the New York Times, and the failure of Americans to support basic research

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.

32 thoughts on “Crazy ants, the New York Times, and the failure of Americans to support basic research”

  1. (And the “more art than a science” business in the quoted section does not help anyone appreciate the importance of taxonomy or the difficulty of recognizing taxonomically informative patterns and applying theories of homology in the interpretation of complex morphological variation.)

  2. James C. Trager

    Yes, everything that Boud1 said!
    And thanks for your re-revisionist history of the situation, i.e., back to what really happened.

  3. Alex, I second that you need to write a reply to the Times. This article actually made my blood boil. There are just so many inaccuracies from the comments on how the ant was “discovered” to, as mentioned earlier, this idea that taxonomy is more art than science. Where did the writer get that idea – it completely debases the value of taxonomy as science (now don’t get me wrong there is art in taxonomy, which is one of the things I absolutely love about it, but taxonomy is not art). But forget the general public for a moment, even many fellow biologists don’t fully appreciate taxonomy. Part of the hiring problem in the US stems from the fact that academic departments all over the country commonly overlook taxonomists for what is perceived as sexier (code for this work can potentially generate lots of overhead for the university) science. Never mind that taxonomy forms the foundation for all of biology and that exposing students to the discipline grounds them in the very roots of biological inquiry. The case of Nylanderia really does highlight how the taxonomic impediment is not just an academic exercise – it has real world implications. And finally, Mrs.Times writer, the ant does have a name – Nylanderia fulva. The writer seemed obsessed with this “conflict” over the common name (there is even an article on this “problem” published earlier this year in American Entomologist). It has a proper scientific name, and by the way the person who actually discovered and described it wasn’t me or Tom Rasberry, but rather that title belongs to Gustav Mayr who gave this ant is actual name back in 1862! Too bad it took into late in 20th century and early 21st to actually “meet” it under such disturbing circumstances.

  4. The New York Times article was ridiculous. Basically, this entire problem was a result of Rasberry (especially) and others muddying the situation to begin with by assuming that the ant in Texas had to be a new and different species. They created further confusion by making up a new common name, “the Rasberry crazy ant.” If James Trager, or just about any other ant taxonomist been the first person to find this ant in Texas, they likely would have called it fulva based on male characters–seriously. Taxonomists trained in this group did not come up with the idea that the Texas species was new. However, this idea was perpetuated so heavily and deeply in the media, that it made it unpopular to take a strong stand otherwise. The tail was wagging the dog. After I found them in Mississippi in 2009, I compared workers and males of specimens from Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, and even some South American material that Alex Wild mailed to me. They all looked very similar to me. Based on the male genitalia, they all closely matched Trager’s concept of N. fulva (Trager 1984). So, it was no surprise that this species turned out to be fulva. Really, the only questions at the time were: was James Trager’s concept of fulva was correct (i.e. did he examine types of all species, and thus, have the correct names for each of N. fulva and N. pubens), were both N. fulva and pubens valid species, and were the subspecies of fulva possibly valid species in their own right (and therefore, could our US species be one of those subspecies, which potentially could be elevated to species). Until those questions were answered, it was relatively unimportant what the ant was called. For that reason, I also referred to this species as N. sp. nr. pubens when I first found it in MS, awaiting the revisionary results of LaPolla. Although it appeared to be N. fulva based on the scientific information available at that time, I did not want to call it N. fulva because I thought that people might think that the species in MS was different than the one in TX and LA, a viewpoint shared by the director of our museum (and my boss-Richard Brown). Incidentally, folks in Florida had mostly been calling their invasive Nylanderia species the wrong name too (N. pubens instead of N. fulva). But, to be fair, both N. pubens and N. fulva have been found in that state, and the workers of each are very similar looking. At least they did not coin another common name. In the scheme of things, the few years it took for the work to be done by LaPolla and others was not an overly long time. As it turns out, Trager was right, his 1984 paper validated, and science has taken another small step forward. Not sure how this can be construed as a bad thing. It is not unusual for species names to be changed following further study.

    The conflict over the common name is comical. There is no conflict at all. It seems fairly straight forward. There are at least three common names for N. pubens: Rasberry, hairy, and Caribbean crazy ant (and probably others), and tawny crazy ant for N. fulva. As we now know the species to be N. fulva, why would we continue to call it a common name for N. pubens? The most misleading common name is the Rasberry crazy ant. For one thing, as John LaPolla mentioned earlier, Tom Rasberry did not discover Nylanderia fulva, Mayr did, in 1862! In fact, he was not even the first person to find it in Texas. James Trager mentioned in his paper (Trager 1984) that he examined specimens of N. fulva collected in 1938 in Brownsville, TX. And, it was noted in Florida much earlier, as well as from other scattered indoor populations in the US farther north. Another problem with the name of Rasberry crazy ant is that homeowners have seen this name and associated it with raspberry plants. I can’t tell you how many homeowners have contacted me about ants on their raspberry plants!

    Rasberry is correct about one thing though. There should be an easier way to receive funding to study an invasive species even if the taxonomy of that species is not clear.

    1. Just to further add to Joe’s nice summary. My co-PIs and I became involved with the Nylanderia project in 2009. We actually received a nice NSF grant to actually do taxonomy (so there is some good news; but today that program that funded us no longer exists!). We were aware of the so-called RCA issue from the beginning and it was on our radar but there were two things that caused a delay in getting to that issue:

      1. We needed to address the genus level problem first. We wanted a solid phylogenetic basis for our work and we knew Paratrechina needed to be redefined. This took some time.

      2. Out of professional courtesy we were also letting some other researchers finish up their work and have a crack at this issue first.

      So we weren’t a bunch of dithering idiots swarming around debating if we should call this thing rasberry or tawny. Instead we were systematically approaching the problem to place our science on firm ground.

      What makes me mad at the NYT article is this: what could have been an informative article about the taxonomic impediment and the biodiversity crisis instead devolved into this strange story about Rasberry being ignored by a bunch of snooty academics. Just cheap sensationalism.

      I don’t feel snooty as a taxonomist I feel frustrated. Frustrated that so many well-deserving colleagues can’t find a job where they can practice taxonomy. Frustrated that funding gets harder to get each year meaning you spend more and more time writing about what you could do if you just had some money rather than actually doing science. Frustrated that natural history museums, those wonderful 19th century creations, seem unable to survive in the 20th century, just as the biodiversity crisis deepens. There is the real story not some dumb discussion about a common name. What a missed opportunity.

      1. I do encourage you to reply to the NYTimes article — there are already a few sane comments about funding for taxonomic research, but some more information about the current state of taxonomy would be welcome. It’s easy to do…

  5. Although taxonomy is arguably not “more art than science”, it is nevertheless more than just “science”. The term “art” may be misleading, and “experience” is perhaps closer to the mark. I suggest that when it comes to identification, experience is a BIG factor. I suspect that few if any taxonomists with little experience in a group can simply follow a key to the correct ID every time.

  6. I did some research on these ants for my masters at Rice University in 2007-2009 (no, it’s not published yet… I’m out of academia now and haven’t resubmitted my rejected manuscripts). The invasion sites really are unbelievable, and my research looked specifically at the crazy ants’ interactions with fire ants and the signs generally pointed to the crazy ants being able to displace fire ants in certain habitats… so the implications can be pretty scary if you ask me.
    But anyway, my point is to share my experience of trying to get information about those ants at the time. I agree there was hardly a frantic debate to figure out what they were. Tom Rasberry was helpful in showing me invasion sites, and the people I worked with at A&M were also very helpful in teaching me about ant colony care and sharing fire ant knowledge. But at least with my inexperienced perspective, I felt like there was someone who should know what they were but I didn’t know if that person existed and if so, who that person was. And other than sensationalist news stories, it kind of seemed like no one had time to really sort out what was going on, although obviously they weren’t a new species just popping up out of nowhere.
    The other thing that resonates with me from the NYT article is the lack of federal interest. It didn’t seem to me that anyone was really taking notice when there was a chance (maybe?) to do something about the spread, but I’m sure lots of people working with invasive species have felt that way.

  7. Joe- Thanks for the detailed taxonomic history, I wish Jon Mooallem (the NY Times author) had taken the time to absorb this history before writing the piece, as his main points (The crazy ant invasion is really serious; the federal response was anemic) are worth broadcasting even if the taxonomic side-story wasn’t correct.

    Katherine – That strikes me as a common perspective among non-taxonomists, that someone out there should be able to identify a given species. But the truth is, for insects at least, most species are orphaned. Ants are a well-studied group among insects, but even here the people with the expertise to do the taxonomy right lacked the time, position, and resources.

    A great many taxonomists entered the profession accidentally, for that very reason: no one was there to solve some crucial problem, so they stepped in to do it themselves and in the process discovered that they had become the world expert.

    1. Alex, your analysis makes sense to me. And I definitely agree with your assessment that we need more taxonomists. I doubt it will happen any time soon, but maybe the decision makers will learn from stories like this and recognize at some point the importance of funding research and taxonomists.

  8. Alex

    The same is precisely true for Australia. In fact, the recently elected government thinks science is so unimportant that a Science Minister was not appointed. I guess too much knowledge is a dangerous thing!
    D Rentz

  9. Not much to add to an interesting discussion, but as I understand it, since taxonomy is thought of as now belonging to the realm of museums rather than universities, universities (where all the money really is, especially these days) really don’t hire people who focus on taxonomic work. Now with natural history museums going down the tank (some universities have their own financial troubles but it’s not much compared to what museums have to deal with right now) and putting a higher emphasis on visitor-generated revenue, it really is a shame that taxonomy is being pushed by the wayside. I actually met and briefly worked with Chen Young and John Rawlins at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh in the distant past, so that article from my local paper you linked to is actually really frustrating.

    It’s not that some people seem to care that taxonomists are going, anyways. As a freshman I once told a pretty illustrious neuroscience professor at my university that I thought taxonomy was a field I was considering. He literally responded, in front of me and several other freshmen, “But I thought taxonomy was dead? We don’t actually need them, do we?” Attitudes like this are what trivialize legitimate taxonomic research. As an outsider looking in, taxonomy really seems to be a field that needs to freshen up its image, urgently.

    1. Alfred Buschinger

      Great thanks, Alex, for this so justified and necessary feature! The deplorable situation of taxonomy is not restricted to the US; it’s the same in Germany, and it is even worse in most European countries.
      “But I thought taxonomy was dead? We don’t actually need them, do we?” as JasonC. puts it, unfortunately this is an attitude most common among university biologists, rarely expressed in open words, but too often standing behind decisions on appointment of new professors, and on granting of research proposals.
      As John LaPolla I also suggest that you write a reply to the Times!

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  11. I just learned about Vannevar Bush’s paradox this past week and it seems to apply here in some measure. Essentially as the body of human knowledge grows our ability to access accurate and relevant information when we need it diminishes in proportion. And he was worried about this back in 1945!

    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1945/07/as-we-may-think/303881/

    We’ve got citizen science projects to classify new galaxies spotted by Hubble. More recently I read of a game designed to allow citizens to help quantify agricultural land by looking at aerial photos in order to better assess how much land is truly in agricultural production. I imagine that there are also citizen science projects for taxonomy. This kind of improvement of data classification/categorization is one of the promises of Big Data, right?

    1. Mike, I have been thinking about your comment for a little while. It seems to me that there are two opposing impulses involved here. The first involves the “establishment science print media” that erects paywall barriers to knowledge. The second is the internet & public domain media. The first advises your paradox, the second tears it down. Search engines and hacking of “closed data” a la Aaron Swartz make finding data almost trivial while paywalls complicate.

      I think that citizen science simply generates MORE data more quickly of sometimes questionable provenance and has little base effect on your paradox but some more thought about this is in order.

  12. There is something seriously wrong about how science is funded.
    Compared to many other sciences, it is very cheap to produce significant results in taxonomy; once you have some basic optical equipment and a literature collcetion, the only funding required is a personal salary, some travel money and preferably a limited DNA sequencing budget…
    Unfortunately, Western science in the 21st century does not appreciate cheap. If you don’t need much money to do your research, you will not bring huge grants to your department, and in many countries your contributions will not be valued. An (unemployed) taxonomist friend of mine put it best: “Taxonomy is too cheap to afford”…

  13. gunnarm k: I wonder how many people can identify the insect in your photo there as Clogmia albipunctata? It is interesting that this species is common here in Auckland City, and yet nobody has bothered to publish a New Zealand record!

  14. By the way, taxonomy is far from “dead”, and several new taxa get published every single day, amounting to thousands per year. However, most of the output now comes from China and Brazil

  15. Good luck with that taxonomy thang.

    What you are seeing & decrying now is just the beginning as academia continues to implode. Adjunct Professor abuse, enslaving graduate students and post-docs, Iron Law of Bureaucracy, political correctness, student costs rising many times faster than inflation, graduates unable to secure employment after racking up student load debt to rival a mortgage and most of all corruption of curriculum & “science” in favor of BS topics like women’s studies, minority studies, “soft science”, etc., the litany of academic corruption can have only one outcome. Less.

    I suppose there was a time this drift into corruption could have been fixed but it’s way too late now. It will have to rise from the ashes, apparently.

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  18. Alex. Thanks for the post and the discussion of the article.

    I was also pretty disappointed with this article. As has been amply pointed out, it veered heavily towards the “common man against the egg-head experts” narrative. I put J. Mooallem (the author) in touch some landowners in invaded areas and provided him with discussion on the biology, and history of the ant. (Very little of the biology we discussed made it into the article.) We touched on the common name “controversy” and I had some misgivings that he might be heading down this human interest path. Reading this discussion, perhaps I missed an opportunity to point out the structural flaws in science funding that led to the delay in getting a solid ID. Funding targeted at responding to emerging threats is woefully absent. As far as invasive species go, the larger problem is that there simply are no resources going to research into or control of invasive species at early stages of their invasion. In the best tradition of representative democracy, a problem does not receive financial attention until large numbers of people are raising holy-hell about it. Further, if it is not a species with demonstrated agricultural impacts here in the US, then forget it. This has to change or we will always be playing catch-up.

    The article did highlight the woefully inadequate governmental response to this invasion, which I appreciated.

  19. Thank you. This is a fantastic post. I wholeheartedly agree with you. We do need much more work on taxonomy, especially of insects. We really new to encourage more people to learn about taxonomy. Even when dealing with genera that are better known than Nylanderia, it can still be exceptionally difficult to ID, as there are very few people with enough experience to help, and the resources to ID can be difficult to obtain for the average person. For lesser studied groups, it can be basically impossible to get a good ID. The way the New York Times wrote this article, it makes it seem like taxonomists have an easy job. They don’t. Identifying ants, especially invasive ones can be really difficult, as you don’t have many limits as to which species are possible due to range.
    Anyway great post!

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  21. Fascinating article and comments with which to follow after reading the NYTimes article. I have great respect for all of you here. Regarding funding, would you please comment on the distribution of public and private money by high schools and colleges/universities in America (nearly all the public ones and probably most of the private) to athletic programs, particularly football? Any thoughts on how to redress this? Though even MIT has a football team, I assume they adequately fund their science programs, because, well, it’s MIT, after all!

    1. latterlifemidwife, public high schools are primarily funded by local county taxes (mostly property taxes) in the US, with some intervention by some state governments. Generally the federal government does not offer significant funding. High school football does often get significant contributions from alumni.

      Post high school education is funded in a number of different ways, depending on if the university is “public” or “private”, and public universities are further divided by “Land Grant status”. Private Universities are funded by student tuition, alumni contributions, federal money like pell grants, etc., and income from accumulated savings (endowment).

      Public Universities get some funding from the State, plus all the income streams found in Private Schools. Land Grant Universities also received free land at their birth to build the institution on, state & federal funding for agricultural research and support.

      Research universities get additional funding by confiscating a large portion of federal, state, and private research grants (called overhead). As you can see, this gets pretty complicated.

      Harvard is a good example of a private university and Michigan State is a typical public land grant university.

      In almost all cases, University generally football athletics is funded by alumni / supporter contributions if the program is large. Generally, the larger the athletic program, the more income it receives OUTSIDE of university sources. Often, the football program generates income for the university in excess of it’s costs; redress is not usually required. Mostly you are barking up the wrong tree concerning funding in this regard. Social impacts are another matter.

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  23. There are a few scientists whose work focuses on ants at Harvard University… E.O. Wilson, Setfan Cover, and Aaron Ellison at Harvard Forest who wrote “A Field Guide to the Ants of New England.”

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