Utahn enters world of exploding ants

U. student even has a species named for him

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 11 2002 12:00 a.m. MDT

Exploding ants, poisonous fruit, a species named for him, copycat spiders — all are part of what made research in Borneo fascinating for a University of Utah graduate student.

Steve Cook, in his second year of grad school in the U. biology department, recently returned from 10 weeks of studying ant feeding habits in the forests of Brunei, a country located on Borneo's northern coast.

The Salt Lake native is so knowledgeable about ants that he is the scientist who will lead the discussions for the first "Science Movie Night" this school year. During the free public events, held on campus the second Thursday of the month, experts discuss the good or bad science in popular movies.

Appropriately, the film that Cook will examine is the 1998 animated feature "Antz."

Since childhood he has been fascinated by ants and other insects. Ants, he notes, are amazingly cooperative. They can recognize each other by their smells and lay down trails to tell one another where to forage for food.

They contain "just a powerhouse of chemical signals" that their fellows can decode through specialized antennae.

Besides, studying them is an adventure. "I just really enjoy the forest," he said.

The Borneo excursion was part of a research project sponsored by the National Science Foundation, a four-year study titled "Resource Imbalance and the Evolutionary Ecology of Tropical Arboreal Ants."

The research station, Kuala Belalong, was a beautiful site approached via river. The local Iban people took the scientists there on motorized longboats.

"On a high-river day it took about half an hour or 45 minutes" to travel from the nearest town to the station. But when water was low, travelers had to get out of the boat and walk beside it in the river. Once they did that 20 times, on a trip that took about an hour and 45 minutes.

Forest dwellers included gibbons, macaque apes and hornbill birds. He said he misses the morning calls of the gibbons.

Besides a plethora of insects, the forest grows many varieties of plants, including one he became all too familiar with.

"There was a particular plant called gluta," he said. "One could think of it as a 30-meter (nearly 100-foot) poison ivy plant."

The gluta literally excretes a poison. When rain falls, it can drip from overhead.

Once Cook found a fruit and, not knowing what it was, chopped it in half. "I smelled it and stuck it in my face, and that was not a good idea."

It turned out to be a gluta fruit. In a day or so his face swelled so badly that he had to enter a hospital, where he was treated with a steroid. The plant's poison is so virulent that in effect it is contagious.

Days later he used the station's microscope, leaning his arm on a workbench. Either his sweat, or possibly fluid from sores caused by the plant, got on the workbench.

His adviser — biology professor Diane W. Davidson — used the microscope and leaned her arm on the same place. Her skin broke out too with a gluta infection.

Today, with that irritation cleared up, both scientists can laugh about the experience.

"As evidenced by his tangle with the gluta fruit, he's curious about everything," Davidson said. "That's the way a scientist should be."

One ant species Cook ran across, Camponotus saundersi, has a peculiar way to protect the nest. "They've been called kamikaze ants by other researchers because they tend to explode or self-destruct when they're attacked or harassed in any way," Cook said.

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