The Last Explorer

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Brian2-XLA few weeks ago, I introduced the readers of LWON to my favorite ant scientist, Brian Fisher. We learned that, while he may not look like much at first glance, Fisher is more badass than you will ever be, even if you become a Krav Maga master and invent an actual light saber.

But amazing as it may seem, his job isn’t to just sit around the jungle, dodging bullets and sewing up his own arm every now and again. He does science as well. In fact, throughout his career Fisher has discovered over 1,000 new species and genera of ants. It’s hard to say exactly how many because he’s only taken the time to describe and name about a third of them.

Thanks to years of field work, Fisher has enough material to last the rest of his life if he wants – quietly inspecting mouthparts or abdomen bands and naming new species. And he could be happy in his lab, marveling at their novel ways of working together or their bizarre and beautiful body parts.

Strumigenys_charino
Strumigenys charino. Looking pissed off.

Among his favorites is the genus Strumigenys (to which he’s added 70 species himself). He describes these miniature trap jaw ants as “a predator of the small world of leaf litter.” As near as I can tell, his favorite thing about these wandering miniature monsters is just how cool they look from the front. That, and the indescribable thrill of discovering something for the first time.

“Right there for that moment you are the only person in the world that knows that this is something new,” he says. “That to me is one of the greatest thrills of being a scientist.”

Melissotarsus emeryi is deft at crawling through wood tunnels but seemingly incapable of walking on flat ground.
Melissotarsus emeryi is deft at crawling through wood tunnels but seemingly incapable of walking on flat ground.

Another is Melissotarsus, in South Africa, which he discovered to be the only adult ant able to produce silk. Fisher says it lives with another insect, called Diaspididae but no one knows why, what they do together or if the silk plays some kind of role in their alternative lifestyle (for hypnotic footage of these fascinating critters, click here or here).

And on and on and on. But while Fisher could easily spend the rest of his life studying the hundreds of new species he’s collected, that’s not his plan. Even now he’s preparing for yet another trip, this time to Mozambique on a Fulbright Scholar grant. He says there are vanishingly few places left for him to work today. Most anywhere he goes, all the ants have been found, described and catalogued.

These days, about the only places he can find new ant species are the deepest parts of the Congo and the mountains of Madagascar. It’s kind of sad when you think about it. In a way, Fisher is one of the last true explorers. Most of the “explorers” on bad cable television – Man vs Wild, Survivorman – they are just retracing the footsteps of thousands of people before them.

Like his counterparts in the animal kingdom, the pseudo-explorer is a type of mimics who adopts the look of a real explorer in order to attract mates and advertisers.
Like his counterparts in the animal kingdom, the pseudo-explorer is a type of mimic evolved to resemble a real explorer in order to attract mates and advertisers.

I spent a day with some of the Seri people of Mexico’s Sonoran Coast who allowed Les Stroud to film a Survivorman episode in their backyard. Concerned that this blithering idiot might hurt himself on the “desert island” that they have been living on and around for centuries, the young Seri men told me they stayed nearby the entire time, snacking on callo meat while he filmed himself surviving the wilds of this dangerous and lonely place (that takes the Seri about an hour and a half to get to).

They watched as he walked the beach he’d paid them to visit, picking up empty callo shells and lecturing the camera about the wasteful nature of man. Not knowing he was walking on the beach where the Seri – often praised as among the most sustainable fishermen in Mexico – drink beers and shuck their day’s catch.

Most modern “explorers” today are just playing pretend – either for the camera of for their sponsors whom they hope will fund their next trip to a place where hundreds or thousands have been before. But not Fisher. His world of ants may be small, but in that world he is still staking out undiscovered territory.

Brian3-XLWhile he still can. He says that every year in Madagascar he is literally racing against time and man’s need to develop. He’ll discover a species somewhere and six months later the entire area will be clear cut or strip mined. It entirely possible that he has discovered ant species that went extinct before they were even named.

So I guess, in a way, he himself is sort of an endangered species – the last explorer of truly wild places. The last jungle pioneer. After the obsession of Livingston and Percy, after the blustering of Roosevelt and Hemingway, and just before the bulldozer, comes Brian Fisher. A quiet little man, on his hands and knees, counting the ants.

 

Photo Credits: Alex WildAntwiki and The California Academy of Sciences

 

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