|Christine Johnson studied psychology in college, so it may be surprising that she is on her way to becoming an expert on slave-making ants. "Even though I was a psychology major, I had always loved insects, even as a kid," she told us. "I took a class as an undergraduate with an entomologist who studied horseflies. One day, I was telling him that I wished I could do something working with insects, but I figured that with my psychology degree I would never get into the entomological world. He said, 'Well, why don't you study insect behavior?'"
That simple suggestion led Chris to the work she is doing now. "I found a biopsychology program where I could study insect behavior. Right now, I'm working toward a Ph.D., studying a species of ants called Polyergus breviceps that literally make slaves out of two other species of ants.
"During the summer, the slave raiders go out in the afternoon and attack a colony of Formica gnava or Formica occulta. They take all the immature ants in the nest and bring them back to their own nest. As they mature inside the slave makers' nest, they learn the odor of their new 'masters' and treat them as if they were their own species. They are then used as workers: The slaves do all the work while the raiders go out and kidnap more slaves."
The queens of the species are no less vicious, Chris told us. "To establish a nest, one these queens will go to the nest of another species and kill the host queen. After she's done that, the workers will take care of her as though she were their own queen. It is really a phenomenal thing to watch," she said.
While studying for her doctorate, Chris works at the American Museum of Natural History as a scientific assistant. Her job involves maintaining collections in the Department of Entomology. "Right now, I am working on what is called the 'type collection.' In scientific terminology, a 'type,' or 'holotype,' is the primary specimen on which a genus or species is described. This is the model, the individual arthropod that defines the genus or species." Only one type for each genus or species exists in the world, and thousands of them can be found in the American Museum of Natural History. Chris is compiling data on the collection and making it available to researchers and others on the World Wide Web.
When she earns her doctorate, she hopes to continue doing research on insect behavior. "I really like research. I'll probably stick with ants, but I'm also interested in the behavior of flies that transmit disease. I'd like to look at what attracts them and what makes them go away," information that could make a difference to human health worldwide.
Chris said she never suspected that she could do something useful with her childhood interest in insects. "I was in my twenties before I realized how great the possibilities are."
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