Ants' Secret Cities Revealed

Feb 28, 2018

Sometimes amazing wonders can lie unseen under our feet. A Tallahassee biologist whose life work is bringing those wonders out into the open now has a new exhibit of these remarkable revelations at the Tallahassee Museum.

Dr. Walter Tschinkel and just a few of the dozens of ant nest castings on display at the Tallahassee Museum.
Credit Tom Flanigan

Dr. Walter Tschinkel taught biology at Florida State University for 43 years. Although he’s no longer involved in the day-to-day classroom grind, he remains passionate and very active when it comes to the subject that has driven him since the beginning.

“I’ve been doing research on ant biology for 45 years now. And I started being interested in their chemical communication, but as is the nature of any research career, you get interested in a broader set of questions,” he explained.

This led Tschinkel to what was literally a “deeper dive” into his favorite topic.

“And about 15 years ago, I started getting interested in the architecture of underground nests.”

The problem was how to examine the nests, which sometimes extend many feet underground, without destroying them. Also, many nests are a complex tangle of interlocking tunnels and chambers. The solution was to make a cast of the nests, pouring a liquid substance into all those intricate negative spaces, waiting under the substance hardened and then carefully digging it out of the ground. Tschinkel spent years trying to find the perfect material to do the casting before narrowing the search down to two metals, poured into the nests in their molten state.

“If you have a nest of very fine structure, really thin shafts and chambers, then the laws of physics tell you – it’s true – that aluminum will freeze very quickly and you won’t be able to fill the nest. So zinc does a much better job.”

Over the years, Tschinkel said he’s accumulated quite a collection of ant nest castings.

“Well if you include all kinds of casting material, I’ve guessing I’ve probably made at least 200, maybe more casts. Even metal casts I’ve made well over 100. What you see on display here, I didn’t count them, are probably about 50.”

Some of those castings are more than 6 feet tall, while others are small enough to fit several in a shoe box, all depending on the species of ant that built them. They are now on display in the Phipps Gallery at the Tallahassee Museum.

“And what you see in this exhibit is the enormous range of changes in behavior that have produced this range of architecture and, quite frankly, I think one of the important functions of science is to produce wonder and awe,” Tschinkel insisted.

“Mysteries Below Ground,” the architecture of ant nests by FSU Biology Professor Emeritus Dr. Walter Tschinkel will be on display at the Tallahassee Museum through June 10.