It had been nearly 40 years since John R. Conway laid eyes on the towering red and white sandstone formations in Colorado’s Garden of the Gods. He took a few moments to appreciate the view, then began scouring the path ahead. He hadn’t come for the scenery — he’d come for the ants.
When John R. Conway (MZool’68; PhDBio’75) set foot in Colorado’s Garden of the Gods National Natural Landmark in June 2018, the wave of nostalgia that hit him was as strong as the wind that threatened to snatch his hat.
It had been nearly 40 years since he’d laid eyes on the towering red and white sandstone formations thrusting hundreds of feet skyward. He only took a few moments to appreciate the view before he began scouring the path ahead.
He hadn’t come for the scenery — he’d come for the ants.
From 1971 to 1975, Conway, a University of Scranton professor emeritus, hiked the 1,320-acre park, at the foot of Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs, in search of the unique, elusive and minimally studied insect called the honey ant. The project, which led to his CU doctoral thesis, inspired a lifelong scientific mission to uncover the insect’s mysterious ecology and evolution.
Last summer, encouraged by the City of Colorado Springs, Conway began meticulously retracing his steps to evaluate the current number, size and location of the ants. His goal: To understand how climate change and the park’s 5.8 million annual visitors were impacting their ecosystem.
“We were concerned that the increase in visitors in the park was disturbing the ants,” said Bret Tennis, operation administrator for Garden of the Gods Park.
Conway’s most recent research validated Tennis’ suspicions.
What he found was sobering: The number of honey ant nests in the Garden of the Gods had fallen 58 percent, from 50 in 1975 to 21 in 2018.
“Ants aren’t always things that pop into people’s heads when making decisions about the land, but they are hugely important,” said Tennis. “We suspected that there are not as many nests in the park compared to 1975 due to a lot of factors including climate change.”
What makes the honey ant stand out from the more than 10,000 different species of ants world-wide is the presence of specialized workers called repletes, which gorge themselves with food until their abdomens swell to the size of grapes. The repletes extract nectar from scrub oak and yucca trees, as well as by “milking” aphids, a mutually beneficial interaction in which an ant will stroke an aphid with its antennae and consume the liquid that is released by the aphids, known as “honeydew.”
The repletes become “living larders” within the colony, functioning both as benevolent members of community, as well as prisoners of their own bodies, growing so large that they become unable to move from their specialized chambers within the nest.
When the climate is dry and there’s little to eat, the repletes regurgitate food to nourish other ants. Once emptied of stored food, the repletes die.
The behavior of the so-called sacrificial ant has long baffled scientists, and little was known about the honey ant until Rev. Henry Christopher McCook classified the species in the Garden of the Gods in 1882 — the research that inspired Conway’s scientific endeavours back in 1971.
Conway found that the number of honey ant nests in the Garden of the Gods had fallen 58 percent.
When Conway first arrived at the Garden of the Gods with his wife, Sharon, in 1971, he was equipped with aerial photographs and topographical maps to help him locate potential nests. But there was one characteristic of the ant that made his investigations especially hard, then and lately.
The ants are nocturnal.
“To see the ants in action, that didn’t start till dusk,” he said.
As the park’s visitors were packing up their hiking gear for the day, Conway would lace his boots and hit the trails with a flashlight in one hand and his maps and camera in the other. Often, he’d stay up all night stalking honey ants as they foraged. As the sun peeked over the towers of sandstone, he’d sleepily veer toward his camp as hundreds of six-legged organisms marched back to their own nests.
Though the nests were easy to recognize (they look like small volcanic craters with perfectly round entrances about the size of a pea), they were difficult to get to. Most were at about 7,000 feet, along the park’s rugged ridgelines —making his nighttime explorations undeniably more difficult.
After he completed his Ph.D. in 1975, Conway moved to Pennsylvania for a teaching position at the University of Scranton, and his fascination for honey ants followed close behind. During his 30-year-tenure, he traveled the world — from Belize to South Africa — researching and teaching tropical biology courses to undergraduates.
One of his most memorable field expeditions occured in 1984, when Cheonway traveled to the Australian outback to locate two species of honey ants, Camponotus inflatus and Melophorus bagoti, which also have specialized replete workers like the ones found in Garden of the Gods. He found that the Australian honey ants were an example of convergent evolution — a phenomenon where organisms of different ancestry independently evolve the same solution to a common problem. In this case, though continents apart, both species of ants evolved the formation of replete workers to help keep the colony well fed in the arid climate.
Though Conway dedicated his career to science, he considered it a duty to make science accessible and interesting to non-scientific communities, and frequently published in the popular press, including Science Digest, National Geographic World and Earthwatch Magazine, as well as in scholarly journals.
Though Conway officially retired in 2016, he’s stayed plenty busy.
Currently, he’s working on a book about the diversity of life, focused on the 100 or so naturalists who first discovered and named most of the approximately two million species on Earth. He also plans on writing an autobiography that covers his many research and photography exhibitions.
Conway has also been settling into a new home. In April 2018, he and his wife, Sharon, built a house in Durango.
“We were looking forward to retiring in the state where we fell in love,” said Conway, who met Sharon in a human physiology class at CU.
So far, he’s found one species of ant in his new backyard — the western thatch mound ant.
Photo courtesy of ShutterStock/Romiana Lee