Friday, August 7, 2009

Amber Defenders and the Zombie Ant

Howard Leland got bad news last month, from the Asclepias Society. It's official now, he told me: The society is interested in butterflies of any species. But not ants.

Mr. Leland is determined to save ants of the world from insensitive scientists, and is pursuing that goal with the zeal he’s shown for promoting butterfly preserves and sustainable leaf blowers.

Some people might have learned of the indignities suffered by a zombie ant, and remained unmoved. Not Howard Leland.

A lesser man might have been discouraged by the Asclepias Society's lack of cooperation. For Howard Leland, it was a call to action.

He's organizing the Amber Defenders: People protecting ants from indignities; even as amber has defended ancestral ants' remains from the ravages of time.

Looking at it that way, it's sort of heroic and poetic.

Howard Leland's told me, several times, the incident whose retelling inspired him.

About fifty years ago, an innocent ant got swabbed by oleic acid. No harm done, physically, but Mr. Leland’s sure the ant suffered emotional distress.

After ants have been dead for a few days they start giving off oleic acid. Ants rely heavily on smells to keep track of things, so that very-much-alive ant registered as "dead" to its colony-mates.

As far as other ants were concerned, they had a dead ant walking. For two hours, the zombie ant was picked up, carried to the colony's 'graveyard' pile, over and over.

So far, the Amber Defenders has three members, including Mr. Leland.

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