Kathryn Fuller Makes Her Name in Science with Ants in Her Plants

updated 01/14/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/14/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

When a phalanx of foraging ants, each as tiny as three grains of brown sugar, first marched across the desk in her Washington, D.C., office some 18 months ago, Kathryn Fuller did not flinch. Nor did she swat. Why? Because Fuller, who is a lawyer, marine biologist, wife, mother of three and "over 40," is also president of the World Wildlife Fund. "Our principal focus is the conservation of animals in their natural habitat," she says, "so I suppose, to the extent that the natural habitat of these ants is my office, I have an obligation."

Fuller hadn't a clue as to what kind of ants they were or where they came from. And she certainly had no idea that she was about to make scientific history. But several weeks later Fuller was visited by a WWF board member, Harvard professor E.O. Wilson, then engaged in co-authoring a 7½-pound tome titled The Ants, now the definitive work on the tiny insects. On being shown Fuller's office-dwelling ants, the professor was heard to exclaim, "My goodness! These appear to be from the genus Pheidole!" Fuller and her guest gathered a few ants in a prescription vial, and Wilson took them back to Harvard for laboratory scrutiny.

Not long afterward, Wilson phoned to say that the ants seemed to be of an unknown species and requested that Fuller collect some soldier specimens to send to him. Going by the book, that mission was accomplished by tempting the ants with a dish of sugar water. Now, Fuller finds it just as easy to entice them out into the open with her lunch. "I give them scraps from sandwiches, bits of cheese and chicken," she says. "They love apple cores." In time, she also followed their trail and found that an ant colony had set up nestkeeping in a potted plant, possibly of Central American origin, that sat in a corner of her office.

Last month Wilson confirmed that the ants are a new species, which he plans to catalog and officially name Pheidole fullerae, or Fuller's Pheidole Ant. "Finding a new species in this group is not unusual," he says. "What is unusual is finding one in a potted plant in a downtown Washington office building." And there, although the colony has now grown to "many, many thousands," Fuller reports, they can stay as long as they want. Never an ant basher to begin with, she's even less inclined to commit insecticide now that her office mates are also namesakes.

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