We, not humans, are natives

An odorous ant of North America argues its side of the story

By Tiasa Adhya
Published: Monday 31 May 2010

My name is Tapinoma sessile. I live in West Lafayette in North America. I was born to an ordinary family under ordinary circumstances. My skin colour is brownish black, I am a bit tall for my age and I emit a foul odour when I am vexed but that can come later. What I am about to recount is the classic tale of a small town boy making it big in the city.

I thrive in a colony alongside 25 other colonies all of which have a queen to look after them. A while back we were living in harmony mostly within hollow acorn and hickory nut shells in forests and went dormant in winter months. Competition for food and shelter was intense with the Temnothorax curvispinosus and Ponera pennsyl-vanica colonies around. That is why the sessile colony had the queen looking after just 74 individuals.

Days went by and we were hit by urbanization. Forests were replaced with buildings. We lost our home. A park was built over the place where our trees stood. The crevices of the trees were inviting. People and children who sauntered into the parks generally left behind morsels of food, enough for us to sustain ourselves with. There were no more fights and the other colonies were nowhere in sight. Maybe they could not adapt. Our colony was flourishing with nearly 500 individuals now.

Soon our colony was so vast we had to leave the park and migrate to the small, cosy houses nearby. I had always been curious about those structures. Living in them sounded adventurous. There were as many hiding places as out-of-doors but the food supply was most abundant and concentrated in one place called the kitchen. We no longer needed to hibernate in the freezing, cold winter months, tucked away as we were under warm floorboards or in the kitchen cupboard; heaters ran 24 hours. It was the most glorious period. Our colony exploded into super-colonies with 58,000 indiviuals and 238 queens.

People now reckon we are pests. I do not understand why. We do not bite or destroy. Maybe it is the sight of 50,000 of us running to and fro on the floor. Or maybe it is that smell we emit. Imagine 50,000 rushes of pina colada, with its aromatic blend rum, cream of coconut and pineapple juice.

A paper was published in Biological Invasions on April 2 on how well we have adapted to the city lifestyle. Grzesiek Buczkowski, an entomologist from the Purdue University in usa, had been observing us for a while. He investigated the effect of urbanization on us in three settings—natural, semi-natural and urban. He wanted to know what made us flourish while once-competitive curvispinosus and pennsylvanica col-onies faded away.

He concluded we are monopolizing food resources and outcompeting others using a trait called invasiveness. He must have us confused with the exotic Argentines and the Pharaohs. Sean Menke, another entomologist from the North Carolina State University was a little less hurtful. He put it down to certain genes in our bodies that helped us go urban so well.

Is it an extraordinary genetic makeup or simply an evolution forced onto us by humans? I think Buczkowski wants to understand this so he could come up with a way to control us. But why? We are the natives, are we not?

They know us well as the odorous ants of North America. We were born here. Colonies came and went trying to keep pace with humans while we survived. We have seen life from high in the alpine meadows of Lake Tahoe to parking lots in rural Missouri and from the desert canyons in Arizona to crowded sidewalks of suburban New York.

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