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Fire ants: Their true story told by the scientist who loves them

When it comes to fire ants, most people prefer to wipe the venomous little varmints off the face of the Earth ?or at least out of their own back yards. The reviled South American native that invaded the U.S. Sun Belt via 1940s Mobile, Ala., is known in biology circles as Solenopsis invicta and everywhere else as a painful pest in the grass, so to speak.

Then there's Walter R. Tschinkel.

An ardent fire ant fan and one of its foremost researchers for more than 30 years, Florida State University's Distinguished Research Professor of Biological Sciences is the author of an encyclopedic new tome ?aptly titled "The Fire Ants" ?that peers have called definitive and lay readers are likely to find both engaging and instructive.

In fact, an April 25 review in the New York Times declared, "This is what the public needs to know about science, not just the results presented in the driest form possible."

Throughout 723 anything-but-dry pages, Tschinkel aims to help readers better understand, if not appreciate, both the social biology and ecology of a despised creature and the hows and whys of scientific research. Along the way, he offers rare glimpses into the sometimes maddening lab-and-field lives of "myrmecologists" ?scientists who specialize in the study of ants.

Why fire ants? "It's a no-brainer," he said. "They are wonderful animals. I love them."

Hot off the Harvard University Press in mid-April, "The Fire Ants" features a cover photo of a magnified S. invicta that only a mother or myrmecologist could love, though Tschinkel hopes readers will eventually succumb to its charms. His opening chapter explains that the book was written in part for those "still open-minded enough to be intrigued, charmed, or fascinated."

"The notoriety of pesthood has certainly created a large fire ant folklore and scores of amusing factoids," he writes, though that same notoriety has generated substantial research as well.

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Source:Florida State University


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