John "Jack" Longino – a faculty member at The Evergreen State College and a nationally known expert on insects – has been awarded a five-year, $649,371 grant from the National Science Foundation. As principal investigator, Longino will lead a study to find new insect species and to explore the possible effects of global warming on insect diversity.
"I'm elated," Longino said from a research station in Costa Rica. "This important work will help us understand the basic cataloging of life. Each of these new species is like an unread book."
While he admits ants aren't necessarily everyone's thing, Longino's work has broad meaning – from global warming to farming. "Ants are really cool," Longino says. "You just look in their little beady eyes... they're everywhere." In the past 20 years, Longino has discovered more than 30 new species of ants and was awarded the prestigious E.O. Wilson Naturalist Award by the American Society of Naturalists in June 2006.
Ants, like many species around the world from insects to mammals, have specially adapted to particular climate zones, particularly in the tropics. Global warming threatens to push temperatures up in those different zones. "Think of the climate zones from the ocean shoreline to Mt. Rainier," Longino says. "The lower climate zones will get warmer, and so will the mountaintops." Many species wouldn't survive those temperature changes.
"This work is trying to identify the scope of global warming," he explains. "We can either ameliorate some fears, or really realize what we'll lose. This may give us all a little extra push to do something about it."
Understanding and finding new species of ants also has impact on agriculture and farming. According to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, fire ants alone cost more than $5 billion each year to control. "Farmers need to know what this new pest ant is that's crawling around," says Longino.
After the first year of the project, Longino will annually select four Evergreen undergraduates to travel to the host country during spring quarter and participate in field and laboratory work. An undergraduate lab assistant will support the project in Olympia. "So much science these days is done in front of a computer – it's important for students to get out, get excited, and see these things," Longino says. "It will be life changing for them – they'll be out in the mud and mosquitoes for 8 weeks, but being excited is what motivates."