News & Politics

Little Wonders

Leeanne Alonso Doesn't Get Antsy About Tiny Things Crawling Around. She Finds Them Fascinating--and a Lot Like Humans.

There's no such thing as small talk with Leeanne Alonso. After introducing herself, she reaches into a purple backpack and pulls out a cedar box. She flips it open. Inside are nearly 100 pins standing upright, a species of ant attached to each.

"See this one?" she asks. Alonso picks up a pin and points to the plump abdomen of an ant. "He's the bullet ant, one of the largest. He's named for his painful sting.

"Ah, this one," she says, picking up another pinned insect, "this is the leaf-cutter ant. These guys are gardeners. They cut down leaves, bring them back to their colonies, and have a long line of ants chop the leaf to a fine pulp. Then they feed the pulp to a plant, which grows a fungus for them to eat."

So much for the idea of mindless critters. In Leeanne Alonso's world, ants rule.

The entomologist turned conservation biologist believes each one–even the small red fire ant, a species she studied in Costa Rica–has a story and a purpose: "That ant is so slow but is built like an armored tank. You couldn't squash it if you wanted to," she says of the ant, her favorite of some 10,000 known species. She believes there are 30,000 species still to be discovered.

"If people really looked at ants," she says, closing the box, "they would be amazed."

Since her early twenties, Alonso has spent about a third of each year in the field, mostly in Central America. But no matter how much wildlife she studies, she never loses her sense of wonder: "Everywhere you look there are 50 new things to see."

Alonso, now 35, first went to Costa Rica as a University of Texas undergraduate. The field station was in a tropical forest. She went on a hike that would change her life.

"There was a scientist with us who showed me my first ant plant," she says. "I had never seen anything like it. He opened up one leaf, and there were so many different ants. You could sit down on the forest floor and watch so many ants walk right in front of you. When I took them back and looked at them under the microscope, I couldn't believe how different one was from the next." It piqued her interest enough to begin research alongside a UT professor on the imported fire ant, a pest common in the southern United States.

She then went to Harvard, where she studied ants for six years while earning a PhD in biology. While working on her dissertation, she discovered seven new species in Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, and Costa Rica. One–the pheidole tennantae–she named for her family, Tennant.

"My dad kept asking, 'How are you going to buy groceries studying ants?' " she says. She had hated ants when she was growing up in Ontario. But something about the insects fascinated her enough to make her give up her childhood dream of studying lions.

"Ants do so many things humans do," she says. "They're such hard workers. Some will go to another colony, raid it, steal the larvae, and raise the ants as slaves. They control other insects. They aerate the soil so plants can breathe. And they clean up all the dead things."

One way to collect ants is by sucking them up in a small tube. A tiny screen keeps the ants from getting into the scientist's mouth. Sometimes little ones slip through, including a few, Alonso says, that taste like bleu cheese.

"In Colombia, ants are considered a delicacy," she says. "You can buy roasted queens by the bag."

When Leeanne Alonso and her husband, Alfonso, moved here three years ago, they wanted to put down roots. Alfonso had a job with the Smithsonian's monitoring assessment and biodiversity program. Also a conservation biologist, he spent ten years studying the monarch butterfly. Leeanne was hired by Conservation International, a nonprofit that protects biodiversity hot spots.

In the Alonsos' search for a home, a real-estate agent showed them houses. But it took the agent some time to figure out her clients–the couple cared mostly about the yard. When they pulled up to a home in Annandale, they walked to the backyard, where there was a quarter acre of woods.

"We saw the land and said, 'Oh, great, we'll take it.' The real-estate agent was like, 'Well, don't you want to see the house?' "

The Alonsos had identical twin boys ten months ago. They named one Antonio–that's Ant-onio–and the other Miguel; they couldn't think of a name that would incorporate a butterfly. "We're happy we had twins," she says. "Now we each have a field assistant."

She says her boys will encourage her to spend less time in the field. Her work as the program director of Conservation International's rapid-assessment program takes her all over. She leads teams into high-risk and high-biodiversity areas to conduct an inventory of what lives there. The hope is that identifying what's there will convince others to save it.

Alonso always makes sure someone is paying attention to the ants. "People say we have to save the forest for the big things," she says. "We have to save the forest for the little things too." *