Peabody exhibit brings into view the ‘hidden’ life of ants

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A carpenter ant on a pitcher plant. (Photo by Mark Moffett)

Small yet abundant, with complex and wildly diverse lifestyles, ants are everywhere, living lives mostly hidden from view. A new exhibition at the Yale Peabody Museum — a traveling show from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History — brings the lives of ants into clearer focus.

With the aid of a macro lens and the insights of ant expert and photographer Mark Moffett, the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History present the world of ants in the exhibit “Farmers, Warriors, Builders: The Hidden Life of Ants,” which opens at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History on Saturday, Sept. 27, and will be on view through Jan. 4, 2015.

Moffett’s macro photographs tell stories about the lives of ants — hunting, communicating, dealing with disease and agriculture — and chronicle the work of entomologists in the field. The exhibition features 39 large-scale color photographs, a three-dimensional aluminum cast of an ant nest, and touchable oversized ant models. Visitors can explore the model of a leaf-cutter worker ant that has been blown up to 50 times its actual size and learn how it uses its body to work and survive in the colony.

“What fascinated me most in preparing this exhibit is that modern humans can be much more like ants than we are like our relatives, the chimpanzees,” says curator Moffett. “With our societies of millions, only ants and humans deal with issues of public health and environmental safety, roadways and traffic control, assembly lines and teamwork, market economics and voting, slavery and mass warfare.”

The Yale Peabody Museum is augmenting the exhibition with live specimens and insect fossils preserved in amber from the Museum’s Divisions of Entomology and Invertebrate Paleontology, predators from its Division of Vertebrate Zoology, and plants from its Division of Botany.

Visitors will see a variety of ant species as well as specimens of different castes from individual colonies to showcase the divisions of labor and differing morphology. Also included are taxonomically close relatives of ants, such as bees and wasps, and other insects that people often associate with ants such as termites.

“We hope these specimens can help provide visitors with a sense of the context in which ants live — how they fit into and interact with other species in their environments,” says Nicole Palffy-Muhoray, a doctoral candidate at Yale assisting the Department of Entomology in the curation of the exhibition.

The live specimens include antlions and multiple ant colonies sourced from local habitats. “We’re excited to give visitors the opportunity to see these often-overlooked creatures in action in an environment where their activities are clearly visible,” adds Palffy-Muhoray.

Among the most innovative additions to the exhibition are the molecular models of ant communication chemicals, “a first for any Peabody Museum exhibition,” says Leonard Munstermann, curator of entomology at the Peabody, and curator of the exhibit. Collaboration with Trevor Williams in the Digital Media office at the Yale School of Architecture has made possible another innovative addition, the 3d-printing technology to create detailed plastic replicas of ants at 100+ times their actual size.

A real-life adventurer who has been called “the Indiana Jones of entomology” by the National Geographic Society, Moffett has won the highest honors in exploration — the 2006 Lowell Thomas Medal from the Explorers Club and Rolex, and the Chapman Andrews Society Distinguished Explorer Award (2008). He received a doctorate under the direction of acclaimed conservationist Edward O. Wilson at Harvard University and remains active in science with more than 80 peer-reviewed publications. He has written more than 25 articles for National Geographic magazine, which has featured nearly 500 of his images. He has also appeared on Conan O’Brien’s show, and was twice a guest on “The Colbert Report” and on NPR. His most recent book, “Adventures Among Ants: A Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions,” won the National Outdoor Book Award.

“Farmers, Warriors, Builders: The Hidden Life of Ants” is organized by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and circulated by SITES, which has been sharing the wealth of Smithsonian collections and research programs with millions of people outside Washington, D.C., for 60 years. SITES connects Americans to their shared cultural heritage through a wide range of exhibitions about art, science, and history.

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