On Tuesday evening, the Peabody Museum of Natural History, best known for its nearly hundred foot dinosaurs, welcomed some of the tiniest creatures in the animal kingdom to its newest exhibit, “Farmers, Warriors, Builders: The Hidden Life of Ants.”
A welcome reception saw a crowd of over 40 people at the newest temporary exhibition, just an hour after the curators made the final touches to some of the displays. Although the traveling exhibit was curated by the Smithsonian and focuses on close-up photography of ants, nearly all of the display cases contain additional materials from the Peabody, including both live and model ants. While the live specimen displays presented some challenges to the curators, Director of Public Programs Richard Kissel said he could not be happier with how the displays turned out.
“Sometimes our exhibits are focusing on something that’s entirely exotic to people or something they have never experienced,” said Peabody Director David Skelly. “Everyone knows what an ant is, and, to me, natural history museums are about curiosity. Almost every child has an experience with an insect early on in their lives, it is one of the first foreign life forms people first come into contact with.”
The exhibit features pictures of just some of the over 20,000 ant species that hail from all corners of the globe. Also on display are aluminum molds of real ant nests, ant predator specimens and live Connecticut ants.
Bringing the live specimens into the exhibit posed a challenge to the curators, said Larry Gall, head of computer systems at the Peabody. At first, the planners hoped to create an eight foot long ant farm, but it soon became apparent that local ants could not dig a colony of that size so quickly. Next, the curators looked to put the ants behind a Plexiglass display, though they were unsure whether a colony could thrive in the environment. While Peabody staff located three ant species that perform well in the Plexiglass conditions, they are still searching for the best fit.
The exhibit also marks the second time that the Peabody used a 3-D printer to recreate an object for an exhibit. With the help of Trevor Williams, a systems administrator at the Yale School of Architecture, the curators created ant models scaled to 100 times their natural size. Using 3-D printing to create objects is much more time efficient and accurate than traditional sculpting methods, and will likely become standard practice at the museum, according to Laura Friedman, an exhibit designer at the Peabody.
The exhibit does not officially open to the public until Saturday, when scavenger hunts, puppet shows, hat-making, ant-featured games will take place throughout the museum. Included in the festivities is the opportunity to snack on ants and crickets, some covered in chocolate and some raw, said Josue Irizarry, Peabody events coordinator and camp director.
On Saturday, visitors will also play with a robotic ant created by Yale undergraduates in an engineering class last semester. The model is aimed to help children to learn about how ants use chemical communication — and not eyesight — to navigate their environments.
The museum has developed an hour long program for local students that teach some basic topics in evolutionary biology, such as adaptations and their social behavior, said David Heiser, head of education and outreach at the Peabody.
Howie Xu ’17, who works in the discovery room at the Peabody, said he thinks the exhibit complements the Peabody’s permanent Discovery Room, which contains a popular display of live leafcutter ants.
Peabody entomologist and exhibit lead curator Leonard Munstermann said he does not know how the public will respond to the exhibit but recalled audiences’ reactions to “Invasion of the Bloodsuckers,” a 2011 exhibit about blood-sucking bugs, which he said captured the imagination of some while repulsing others.
“The human race is of course doomed to extinction in 20 to 50 thousand years, and you know, it’s a toss-up whether the ants or the termites will take over when that happens” Munstermann said.
The exhibit, which is located on the first floor of the museum, closes on Jan. 4.