sarahkeenihan

Is an ant worth less than a mammal?

In August 2014, Uncategorized on August 6, 2014 at 4:15 pm

Kirsti Oecophylla Cairns

Kirsti: I’m in the midst of planning an AntBlitz for a National Science Week project here in Armidale.

An AntBlitz is comparable to ECOBLITZ, or BUSHBLITZ, or BIOBLITZ. Essentially, it’s a 24 hour period in which citizens can help us collect ants, sort ants, identify ants and curate a reference collection for a given location. All this activity will go toward helping a local tree group understand their ant communities and document their change over time. Ants are used as bioindicators of ecosystem health, and can be used to measure the impact of various land management practices.

What the citizens don’t see is a whole heap of careful planning and experimental design. We aim to ensure that our projects create useful data, not just a load of dead ants in vials that no one will look at ever again.

Yep, we kill the ants.

We kill them without ethics approval from anyone. We can do this because there are no requirements for ethics approval relating to invertebrates other than cephalopods.

Anything with a backbone? The approval processes, forms, committees and meetings one must work through are time consuming and don’t always guarantee you can continue with your research. And rightly so. Ethical issues regarding the use of animals in research are subjective, highly contentious and tricky to navigate. Humans have made many mistakes in the past whilst using animals in research, and some would say we still do.

But for invertebrates things are different. Reasons given for why these creatures are not protected by ethics approval vary, from citing underdeveloped nervous systems (and therefore reduced capacity to experience pain, stress and distress) to the fact that so many are killed in every day life anyway.

But an important part of my work is about acknowledging moral objections that others may have in killing ants. I argue there is ethical value in killing a relatively small number of individuals representing a social colony in order to learn more about their ecology, their identities, their sociality, and their function on our planet. Killing non-reproductive individuals of a colony formed by hundreds, if not thousands, rarely if ever impacts on their population dynamics. Because turnover of worker ants is high, those individuals we have gratefully taken are replaced. Quickly.

I’m currently developing a Code of Conduct (kind of similar to this one) with respect to how School of Ants deals with ant collections, specimens and curation of our reference collections. I’m really keen to get some feedback on the diversity of opinions on the killing of ants for research purposes.

CONTACT ME if you’ve got a view on this!

[photo by Kirsti Abbott]

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