Sunday, January 25, 2009

Nothomyrmecia macrops

Back when Hickory was little more than a robust sapling, I used to listen to shortwave radio broadcasts from around the world. As I write this memories arise of propaganda from the Voice of America and the Voice of Russia, of Radio Free Europe reminding the world what communism really meant from some hiding place in Yugoslavia, catching up on the work of the latest ex-pat American poets at the Cafe Radost in Prague, learning the intricacies of political life in Slovakia, hearing a pretty good country music show from Radio Jordan, occasionally catching the Columbian football on Radio Caracol (and I thought Spanish commentators got excited) hearing live the announcement of the death of Kim Il-sung on Radio Pyongyang, transmissions in French from Central Africa with interviews from the market-place or tales of the search for a new water supply. Before the Internet it was the only way that you could directly enter the lives of people from all over the world, without the mediation of journalists from another culture and with motives of their own.

Everyone who listened to shortwave back then will remember Radio Australia. I think it no longer reaches Europe, but the pleasure of hearing the weekly music show by Lucky Oceans, who never played a song that wasn't worth hearing, and the well-made documentaries about the life and history of Australian towns never dulled.

If the title of this piece means anything to you, you are probably an entomologist, or perhaps you too used to listen to Radio Australia. This is the story of an ant, and of Dr Bob Taylor, the man who (re-)discovered it. Nothomyrmecia had been recorded near Balladonia in Western Australia by a collecting party in 1931, and there was particular interest in the highly primitive social structure of the colony, and they appeared to confirm that ants had evolved from wasps.

The exact location of the site was not recorded by the party, and for decades entomologists searched Western Australia for Nothomyrmecia. It was in 1977 that Bob Taylor was with a group that set out for the area to continue the search. In Poochera, South Australia, 700 miles from Balladonia, they made a stop, and Dr Taylor chose to contemplate a clump of trees, on one of which there was a single ant. He ran back to the camp and, with truly Archimedian passion, declaimed, "The bloody bastard's here. I've got the Notho-bloody-myrmecia." In this way Bob Taylor made his life worth recording.

No comments: