It’s really all about the fire ants

Published 12:33 am Sunday, October 11, 2009

I’ve recently started re-reading “Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin, chiefly because it’s about to reach the ripe old age of 150 years.

It’s interesting when you go back to books you’ve read before because time and place change in your life. As that time and place change you stand a point of relativism to the work you’re reading.

Or that’s how this all appears.

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If you’re unfamiliar, “Origin of Species” was the result of Darwin’s trip in 1831 on the H.M. S. Beagle’s expedition around the world.

In South America, Darwin found fossils of extinct animals, but those fossls bore a resemblance to some animals he observed.

When Darwin reached the Galapagos Islands he saw variations of plants and animals again similar to those he saw in South America.

Darwin took notes and collected specimens.

When he returned home, he studied his notes and his collection. Then, he formed some theories: evolution occurs; it happens over eons; the reason for evolution is natural selection; species came from a single original form through a branching-type process, speciation.

The key here, at least in this reading, is variation among species is random and survival of organisms is based on its ability to adapt to its environment.

It’s interesting today in the 21st century, nearly 150 years after Darwin published his research, the mere mention of evolution sets off a storm among folks with opinions on both sides.

The greatest opposition to Darwin comes from religious groups, who say there is no evolution; there is scripture and therefore Darwin’s theories are hogwash.

Almost any person who even plays around with fossils will tell you there are intermediate fossils — transitional ones — for the asking. These fossils give us examples of little changes over time.

Nothing stays the same. That’s basic knowledge.

We have living examples of evolution. One of my favorites is the fire ant. This creature has given enough grief to all of us.

In the 1970s scientists in Mississippi discovered a new kind of fire ant.

The colonies supported several queens, instead of just the one. These colonies overcame the native ants in the area.

So, how did they get there?

Scientists told us that the fire ants took over empty nest sites and had the one queen kind of colony. But as they took over, fewer empty nests were there for the taking. Remember, these guys came from South America and they didn’t have the natural enemies they would have had in South America.

The population grew. And with it, the colonies adapted to having more than one queen. They did this, the scientists said, by developing a gene over time. It’s a gene that determines smell.

Depending on the queen’s gene (what kind of smell she has) workers in the colonies accept or reject her.

It’s not so pleasant when the ankle biters sting, though. But if our scientists study the evolution of this critter, it’s likely we’ll be able to control them in a way that won’t damage our environment. That’s worth a little Darwin.

Leesha Faulkner is editor of The Selma Times-Journal. Call her at 410-1730 or e-mail her at