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Friday, October 22, 2021

Column: Kenyan romance

It was over 20 hours of coach-seated travel from Sacramento International to the Nairobi airport. That meant about five movies, one and a half books, one hour socializing/eating and six hours of sleep.

And why, you ask, did I choose Kenya, of all places, as my summer vacation? The answer: ants.

I have worked over the past year and a half on extracting and analyzing ant DNA in a UC Davis ecology lab. With this information, we can compare the relationships between multiple species of ants that form mutualisms (a relationship between two organisms who both benefit from the others existence – like flowers and bees) with the African acacia tree.

But where do the ant samples we extract come from? That’s right, Kenya.

So this summer, I vacationed to Kenya with my professor to collect more ant samples. And this is where my story begins.

Because Kenya sits nearly on the equator, the sun rises at 6 a.m. and sets at 6 p.m. Thus, due to a combination of my 10-hour jet lag and the early rising sun, I got up close to 6:10 a.m. daily.

Around 7:30 a.m. I had breakfast with my professor and the other researchers there. Breakfast usually consisted of homemade bread with honey and a cup of delicious Kenyan tea. A couple weeks into my stay, we had to purchase a bunch of squirt guns from town as weapons against the overly aggressive gang of birds who surrounded our table every morning.

Here’s the exciting part: my sexy get-up. It started with my nylons, then mismatched high ankle socks. I sprayed mosquito repellent all up and down my legs. Then time for my three-times-too-big cargo pants, four pound hiking boots, undershirt and long sleeve shirt.

Now the practicalities. Wide-brimmed safari hat, sunglasses, knee high snake gaiters, backpack, water bottle, binoculars, clip board, sunscreen and finally, my beloved fanny pack, fully equipped with forceps, garden nippers, sharpie, ethanol-filled vials and a compass. Then a second coat of mosquito repellent.

If you’re having a hard time with that mental image, just know, it was hot.

My professor and I, along with our two field assistants, then took out our elderly lime green Range Rover, named Kermit, on the 10-minute safari to the fields. Now by safari, I do literally mean safari. It was 10 minutes of ditch-ridden dirt road, and non-stop sightings of baboons, birds, impalas, giraffes, zebras, ostriches, antelope, elephants and if I was lucky, a lion or leopard.

Culture shock? Yeah, you could say that.

Upon arriving in the field, my inner-nerd was unleashed.

Here’s a simplified run-down of what we were studying:

A very common species of tree in Kenya, Acacia drepanolobium, has obligate mutualisms with three species of ants, Crematogaster mimosae, Crematogaster nigriceps and Tetraponera penzigi. These ants, all in very different ways, live off the golf-ball-sized swollen thorns of the acacia tree and its fruits, while in return the ants protect the trees from herbivores.

What’s amazing is that these ant species all compete against each other for the trees. Each has their own pattern of pruning the tree to maximize their competitive status. For example, one species prunes their trees branches away from neighboring trees of other species. This decreases the probability of takeover by the other species. Colonies of ants are constantly looking to expand their territory. The acacia tree fields are literally an ant battleground.

One day we spotted a dark patch near the side of the road. Ants. All four of us knelt down to find that it was a war between ant species. By the time we got there, the casualties were immense. Dead ants covered the ground. But there was no surrender yet. There were ants in pairs, threes and up to groups of five, all biting at each other while twisting around in circles. Needless to say, it was a gory sight.

The most brutal of them all were the queen ants. The queens are the establishers of the colonies. They fly to whatever baby acacia tree looks best, and lay their eggs in one of the newly-budded swollen thorns. When inspecting these thorns to see what species is currently inhabiting it, we quickly discovered that these queens don’t play nice.

Often queens settle into thorns where another species of queen has already laid her brood. This is where the battle ensues. In multiple thorns, the triumphant queen had stuffed the losing queen’s head into the entrance hole she made to get in. This blocked any other queens from entering the thorn. And perhaps served as a warning to anyone even thinking about it. Sick, but crafty.

After a long day of work in the blazing hot field, we would drive back to Mpala in time for lunch and the regular thunderstorms.

Then, after a couple hours of lab work, I would walk to the nearby village to play soccer with the kids, many of whom at age five could outplay a once-varsity soccer player. They kicked my butt (always a good self-esteem booster).

Call me a nerd, but flying half way around the world to meet and study my true love is my idea of a true exotic romance.

CAMMIE ROLLE can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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