Walter Tschinkel likes long walks in the woods carrying a favorite shovel and buckets of fresh dental plaster.
Not the average gear for a nature hike, to be sure, but not every nature lover shares Tschinkel's particular passion making plaster casts of ant nests.
Tschinkel (it's heard as "chinkel")is an unchallenged master of the art and science that defines this rarified realm of myrmicology, the study of ants. Tschinkel's career in the science began in the early '60s, on the eve of the federal government's declaration of war on the not-so-humble fire ant, Solenopsis invicta (literally, "the unvanquished"). He's had nearly four decades since to ponder the consequences of that hopelessly lost cause, and to hone his respect and admiration for ants of all kind.
Of late, FSU's "Ant Man" (there's only one, and he's a fixture in the biological science department) has quite literally dug himself into a new dimension in ant research. His amazing collection of ant nest casts—poured, dug up and reassembled with Job-like patience—adorns his campus office and lab.
To date, Tschinkel estimates he's made more than 40 casts of nine different species. His favorite hunting ground is the floor of Tallahassee's nearby Apalachicola National Forest, home to as many as 80 species of ants—some so unusual they're seen only during the winter.
Aside from their remarkable range in size and complexity, what's so striking about Tschinkel's casts is that they represent entire hidden worlds that few people ever see—even ant scientists—in such dramatic detail. In itself, for Tschinkel such revelations represent "a sort of art/science adventure," he says, that is "physically, intellectually and aesthetically pleasing."
Beyond that, the casts are mute testimony to the unfathomable scope and power of ants' evolutionary traits.
"I'm repeatedly reminded that the ants create these remarkably organized nests without a boss and without a blueprint—each worker "knows" what to do at each stage of the forming nest," Tschinkel said. "The collective result of thousands of such decisions is the nest that I reveal."
A corollary on human behavior emerges
from studying the casts, he adds. His observations also remind him "that many human organizations depend more on the dispersed intelligence of their workers for their success than they do on decisions from the top."
"When you have seen one ant, one bird, one tree, you have not seen them all."
ANTI-SUMMER: A cast of the nine-foot tall nest of the so-called winter ant, prenolepis imparis, looks like an alien life form. The winter ant is so-named because the species only shows itself during cold-winter months.
ANTICS: The home of the so-called "crazy ant" (Conomyma pyramica) resembles a steep staircase with evenly spaced steps. The ant gets its nickname from its "crazy" high-speed running ability.
Cast of the odd-shaped home of the so-called fungus-gardening ant, Trachymymex septentrionalis. The inset above shows a cluster of fungus-the ant's primary food-found inside one of the cast chambers.
Ant biologist Walter Tschinkel gazes at a suspended cast he made of a nest of the Florida harvester ant, Pogonomymex badius ("the bearder ant"). The cast consumed five gallons of dental plaster in the making. Extracting it required digging a hole nearly nine feet deep and five feet wide in the floor of the Apalachicola National Forest where it was found. Tschinkel says roughly 5,000 ants live in a nest this size which the ants can build from scratch in about five days.
Tschinkel pours fresh dental plaster down the entrance of an evacuated nest. The plaster hardens in only a few minutes. Excavation of an entire cast can take many hours, and requires painstaking reassembly back in the lab.