The Washington Post ran a special “Museums” section on October 7th, and in the featured article, “Curators’ Favorites: No Cookie-Cutter Ideas Here” they asked local curators what some of their favorite objects are. This article met the definition of being phoned-in in every sense of the phrase. All is forgiven, however, since they published the pick of Ted Schultz, research entomologist and chairman of the Department of Entomology, National Museum of Natural History:
Looking at a 20-million-year-old ant trapped in amber.
Such ants grew fungus gardens inside their colonies. This ant, found in the Dominican Republic, is less than 3 millimeters long.
“I always thought these fungus-growing ants, the agricultural ants, were the coolest organisms I’d ever heard of. This one was climbing up some tree 20 million years ago and the resin from the tree oozed out and trapped it.
“These ants, some of them live in trees, some of them climb up in trees to get stuff to go back and plant their garden on. These get seeds or little flower petals or caterpillar poop and other kinds of organic detritus. They might be wandering up the tree getting that stuff — and that’s what this one was doing. I think a lot about what was the ancestor of all fungus-growing ants like? How did it discover agriculture? What was it doing before? If I knew what it was doing before I might be able to figure out how it wound up cultivating fungi.
“For biologists that work in a museum, who look at specimens all day, who go out and collect things, it’s a largely visual, aesthetic kind of undertaking.
“For us humans and mammals, the soft tissue is all on the outside and the hard bones are all on the inside. For insects, the soft stuff is all on the inside, and the outside is sculptured. It’s hard sculpture. We become connoisseurs of these miniature sculptures.”