Edward O. Wilson, arguably the world authority on ants, has spent much of his life bent at the waist and peering at the ground in search of ants. Yet, the Harvard professor reports, this is the first time he has found an ant completely new to science living in an office in downtown Washington and subsisting on a diet of cookie crumbs.
"It's not too surprising to find a new species. It's not unusual to find them in a rain forest or in the desert," Wilson said. "But it is just amusing that I could turn up a species new to science in the office of the president of the World Wildlife Fund."
Wilson was visiting Kathryn Fuller, president of the international conservation group of which Wilson is a board member. The two promise this is not a publicity stunt.
"I asked Ed with a little embarrassment if he'd look at the ants on my desk," Fuller said. The ants were a mystery. Fuller said they would appear suddenly. She knew this: They liked cookies. But where were they coming from? At first, Fuller suspected they were living in her telephone.
Wilson thought the ants would be some common species. But lo and behold, science works in mysterious ways, for it turns out that the diminutive, yellowish ants belong to a large New World genus called Pheidole, the very group of about 600 species that Wilson is busy classifying.
Fuller and Wilson got a few glass vials from the medicine cabinet. Wilson took a few specimens back to the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. He called Fuller several hours later and told her the species didn't appear to be known.
"It is very likely a new species," Wilson said, "but I need to do a more careful study of the whole group before I'm certain."
If they are new, Wilson plans to name the species Pheidole fullerae ("Fuller's Pheidole Ant") or perhaps even Pheidole fullericola ("The ant living with Fuller").
"I'd be honored," Fuller said.
Further investigation revealed that the ants were living in a potted palm in the corner of Fuller's office. They were reaching Fuller's desk via a telephone cord.
The palm, Draceana reflexa, came from a Florida nursery. Wilson said ants often hitchhike on nursery stock from South and Central America. The ants in Fuller's office could have come from a small, marooned population living at the Florida nursery for decades.
Wilson and Fuller decided to preserve and protect the only known population of what soon might be called Pheidole fullericola. For a time, Fuller fed the ants apple cores and sugar water, with the occasional Oreo cookie and cheese nibble.
Recently, Fuller's botanical colleagues planted a few Costa Rican plants that secrete a sticky goo that the ants like. Now, it's a healthy, self-contained ecosystem.
Conservationist Fuller is content to continue sharing her desk with the colony. "They're a wonderful reminder of the extraordinary diversity of life on Earth," she said.