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Chemicals of Fear

Kate Mathis

In summer 2007, during a field study in Chiapas, Mexico, Kate Mathis (04F) worked as an assistant researcher. During her last month there, she was given freedom to design her own project, and chose to study Azteca ants.

“These ants are important to shade coffee farms,” she says. “Big trees are the perfect habitat for Azteca ants. They go out onto the coffee plants, killing and eating the pests that eat coffee.” The threat to the ants is the Dipteran parasitoid, a tiny fly that seeks out Azteca ants to inject with its eggs, which turn into larvae and kill the ants.

Chemical compounds are one way that insects communicate, Mathis explains, and she found that an alarm pheromone was helping at-tract the flies. She knew that visual cues were also important, and after returning to Hampshire, she worked with a group of students to build a model on which mechanical ants could move around.

She returned to Mexico in February, taking with her the model of swarming ants and several compounds she had synthesized. Along with the pheromones, she discovered the flies attacked only ant-shaped objects. With her research, decoy bases can be set up to attract those flies, allowing Azteca ants to have a more protected colony.

Mathis has submitted an article to the journal Occologia that is in review. She plans on taking a year off before applying to graduate school. “I pretty much got to do everything I wanted in my Div III,” she says, “play with bugs, travel, and research.”

—Taliesin Nyala (07F)

 

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