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.
The ants carry poison sacks throughout their body, he said, "from head to abdomen." When they are attacked, they suddenly exude "this sticky poison."
"It comes out of their mouth, it comes out of their behind, it breaks through the exoskeleton and it's a mess. It's like toothpaste, and it's sticky."
The poison smells like creosote, he said. The exploding ant dies, but any predator that bothered it will think twice before going after another saundersi.
Once Davidson was watching an "ant" when it went to the tip of a leaf and then let itself down with a strand of silk. "It was actually a spider," Cook said.
Certain species of spiders look and act like ants, even to the extent of grazing on leaves. Cook doesn't know why but speculates that they may be hiding from predators, preying on insects that are unwary because the ants don't pursue them, "or it could be the spiders are utilizing the ants as prey."
Last year, scientists from Davidson's lab collected a group of ants and sent them to an expert in Australia to check the species. "He determined that one of the species . . . was an undescribed species."
This summer, the scientists returned to the vicinity and discovered a nest of this species. They photographed it and collected the colony. This became the "type colony," meaning the identifying colony for the species.
"After you have a type colony you can describe it," he said. When a new species is formally described, it receives its scientific name.
Rudy Kohout of the Queensland Museum, Australia, wrote a scientific paper describing the ant. He asked Cook if he could name it after him, since Cook had collected the type colony.Cook accepted the honor. That means that forevermore, a large species of ant, copper-colored on the rear and black elsewhere, will carry the scientific name Polyrhachis cooki.
E-mail: [email protected]