VENUS –– Huge piles of red-tinted sand, shovels, flags, and a kiln-oven filled with charcoal and zinc dot the landscape on Red Hill at Archbold Biological Station. The site looks like an archaeological dig but it’s actually a scientific exploration.
University of Illinois PhD student Kim Drager is studying how ants interact with the soil environment. She came to Archbold to create zinc metal casts of the underground nest colony of Odontomachus relictus, a species of carnivorous trap-jaw ant found only on the Lake Wales Ridge.
Drager teamed with colleague Dr. Adrian Smith to pour 600-degree molten zinc into a trap-jaw ant nest cavity. Then, they dug. And, dug. When they emerged from the excavated hole like a burrowing owl they brought with them a cast that measured 6.7 feet long.
Drager and Smith share a passion for knowledge about the trap-jaw ant. While Drager studies how the ants ineract with soil, Smith, who is from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, is studying the chemical ecology of trap-jaw ants.
The two scientists’ zinc cast of the linear tunnel shows periodic pancake-shaped chambers beyond their expectations. The zinc ran out at 6.7 feet but the tunnel went deeper. How deep does it go? How does the nest colony structure and depth relate to sandy slopes at Red Hill, hydrology, temperature, and ant species competition? They do not know…yet.