Wednesday, 31 March 2010


Ignoring the heat, you lift the stone to count the ants, bracing yourself for what you might find. You will publish your research and it will be discussed by eminent ecologists and scientists. Surely someone will know what to do.

You look out across Hawaii’s scattered islands. This paradise you call home is the planet’s most isolated archipelago. In the seventy million years since its creation, a new species arrived only every hundred thousand years.

But then your Polynesian ancestors came and settled the islands, hunting the bright-plumed birds to furnish their king with feathers until there were none left. The pigs they brought colonised forests, damaging trees and rooting up the forest floor.

In 1778, Captain James Cook took news of your islands to Europe. Traders came, bringing diseases which reduced your people’s numbers by a fifth. New settlers cut down forests and brought animals and plants from their native lands.

Today half of the islands’ one hundred and forty bird species are extinct. Nearly a third of the twenty thousand species of animals and plants are alien. Like the forest grasses, tree snakes and carnivorous snails, the Argentine ants you study pose yet another risk to Hawaii’s diminishing ecosystem.