Saturday, January 14, 2017

How to start an ant lab in the rural tropics

Borneo is one of the most important areas in the world for urgent ant exploration.  It is home to a high number of ant genera, is estimated to contain hundreds of undescribed species, and is under extreme conservation threat, with over half its land area cleared for farmland in just the past few decades.

But we still know little about the ants of Indonesian Borneo.  Most ant research in Borneo occurs in Malaysia or Brunei—the two countries that share the island with Indonesia—even though they cover only a small minority of its land area.  As far as ants are concerned, the three fourths of the island that happen to fall on the Indonesian side of the border are pretty much a blank spot.

So for the past few months I’ve been setting up a lab here in Sukadana, making us the only hub of ant work for hundreds of miles in any direction.  But starting a lab in rural conditions in the wet tropics required a bit of improvising.

Getting ethanol, for example, is almost impossible.  There is a medical supply store in the provincial capital of Pontianak, a 4 to 5 hour boat journey away through the winding Kapuas River delta.  But even they don’t sell ethanol.  Ethanol must be special ordered in Jakarta, shipped overseas to Borneo, and transported to Sukadana by riverboat.  This complex supply chain drives the cost up to a staggering forty US dollars per liter.

Stymied by geography and economics, we are forced instead to preserve specimens in rubbing alcohol, which is available in Pontianak.  Even that takes time, with the alcohol arriving by riverboat a few weeks after ordering.

To collect data in support of our conservation work, I’ve set up an ant lab in Indonesian Borneo

I brought some basic equipment with me from the US—microscope, lamp and bulbs, forceps and insect pins.  But much of the rest of our gear is pieced together from supplies available at local hardware or grocery stores.

I built a litter sifter, for example, out of two paint trays, some wire mesh, duct tape, epoxy and a can of spray paint.

I made a litter sifter to sort ants and other insects from piles of decaying leaves.  This one consists of two layers—a top one to hold the litter…

...and a lower one, spray painted white, to catch the insects that fall through the mesh.

To find ants inside rotting logs and vegetation, I bought a locally made machete.

To collect ants once we find them, we built pooters out of plastic tubing, rubber bands, and either a thin cloth or soft mesh from a kitchen strainer.

A pooter is a long straw that lets you use lung power to suck up ants, but prevents them from going into your mouth

To store specimens once they’ve been collected, Brian Fisher recommended I use plastic containers with mothballs and a drying agent.  I lined my containers with packing foam that Sara and I used on our move from the US, and sealed it in place with Elmer’s glue.

A plastic container, packing foam, a mothball, and some silica gel make a decent specimen drawer

After collecting and storing ants, the final technical hurdle was finding a way to view them under a microscope.  For this step I adapted a trick I learned at Ant Course in Uganda.  I placed a plastic ball inside a spool of electrical tape, and put a blob of modeling clay on top of the ball.  By sticking the pin in the clay and rotating the ball in its socket, I can view specimens at just about any angle.

A homemade ball-and-socket joint, with a dab of modeling clay or old chewing gum, can be used as a stage for looking at specimens under a microscope

With all our equipment in place, we are finally ready to begin collecting ants.  We’ll start with a couple projects to see how local slash-and-burn farming practices impact ant communities, and how our reforestation efforts help undo the damage.

I can’t wait to see what we find!