A Team from PC is Tracking RI’s Ant Population

The ants go marching, one by one, and PC researchers are taking notes.
James Waters studies ants at Providence College. Students are doing a statewide survey; turns out ants like pecan sandies. Photography: Justin James Muir/Providence College.

Ants aren’t high on anyone’s list of charismatic creatures, but if you want to find some unusual specimens, James Waters can show you how. He and his students at Providence College are conducting a statewide survey of ants, and part of myrmecological lore, the scientific study of ants, is that pecan sandies — the tasty shortbread cookies — are the best bait for attracting them.

“When ants carry the crumbs back to their nests, it’s easier to track the crumbs (light on a dark background) than to track the ants themselves (dark on a dark background),” Waters says. It turns out, ants love peanut butter and Spam, too.

Not much else is known about the ants that call Rhode Island home, however, so Waters is searching manmade and natural habitats for as many species as he can find. “Knowing the species we live with is the cornerstone of all biology,” he says. “Having simple baseline information about what species of ants are where lets us ask lots of interesting questions.”

So far, the team has identified thirty-seven kinds of ants in Providence alone, mostly on the Providence College campus and at Roger Williams Park, where the state’s first African big-headed ants were discovered by Lou Perrotti in the zoo’s new rainforest exhibit. Statewide, sixty-nine species of ants have been recorded, but Waters thinks the total number is likely closer to 100. Among them is the very rare fat curltail ant, first found last year by elementary school student Trey Hutchinson in his West Greenwich backyard.

That’s the kind of unusual discovery that Waters and his students are making on a regular basis. They found New England’s first population of Asian needle ants, an aggressive invasive species, next to a dormitory at Providence College. And at Lincoln Woods, they identified tiny vampire ants, which puncture the exoskeleton of their larvae to drink their blood.

“Ants are the most ecologically dominant animal on Earth. They outweigh humans on the planet,” he says. “And with societies ranging in size from dozens to millions of individuals, they have evolved complex rules for behavior, cooperation and social immunity that we could learn a lot from.”