The average person would probably cringe at the sight of creatures with more than four legs, and possibly go to extremes to get rid of these so-called “pests.”
Quite frankly, studying creepy crawlers like arthropods and insects have been more of a “man’s job” until Corrie Moreau came along to shake up the status quo.
Moreau is an associate curator for the department of science and education at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, and also teaches evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago. Her interests include studying evolution, insect microbiomes, biogeography and more importantly, all things ants.
Above all else, she cares about conservation, animal welfare and supports the museum’s Women in Science initiative. She is Chicago’s very own rock star scientist, advocating for overall social equality and scientific literacy.
“Here at the Field Museum, we have outstanding exhibitions that provide a window to the public in order to learn about new science and global cultures,” Moreau said in a behind-the-scenes tour of the Field Museum with journalism students from Columbia College Chicago. “My job is to promote new science, explore the world and also be a figure that more than half of the population can identify with.”
Moreau has become so popular that she had her very own exhibit called the Romance of Ants from 2010 thru 2011. To accompany the exhibit, a small graphic novel by insect research assistant Alexandra Westrich was handed out to visitors, which told the real-life story of how Moreau started off ant gazing and experimenting as a child in New Orleans.
“When I grew up, I received my bachelor’s and master’s degree in biology at San Francisco State University,” she said. “But after that, I didn’t know of any opportunities, and I didn’t feel competitive enough.”
Moreau was lucky to find her passion at a young age, but like most students fresh out of college, it was hard to find her true calling. With the help of her SFSU advisors, ant expert Dr. Greg Spicer and genetics and evolution expert Dr. Brian Fischer, she was able to get into Harvard’s Ph.D. program, working with the world’s leading expert in myrmecology – the study of ants – Dr. Edward Osborne Wilson, and worked closely with evolution expert, Dr. Naomi Pierce. “Harvard has the world’s largest and best ant collection,” Moreau said. “When I heard I was accepted into E.O. Wilson’s program, I almost fell out of my chair.”
She later became a Miller Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley and even secured her current job at the Field Museum before starting the fellowship. For any young, hopeful student, this is a dream come true.
Some of her research while working with the Field Museum was published in the Journal of Insect Science in 2014, detailing the speciation, migration and behavior of 94 ant species in the Florida Keys. “We studied genetics and modeled the different variations of ants, and the frequency in which speciation occurs,” Moreau said.
A lot of ant species migrated and also invaded the Keys when humans traveled throughout the Caribbean and across the world. Invasive species tend to force the natives out or destroy them. Human impact is another important factor that causes changes in diversity just from sheer habitat reduction and changing plant diversity. “If you take away their homes, if a certain plant that they munch on and live on happens to disappear, that species of ant could disappear,” she said.
Moreau alluded to her studies of ants as a microcosm of the bigger issue of climate change, which she said has affected almost 40,000 ant species. For instance, ants will move up north about 500 miles if their homes in the Florida Keys are destroyed or invaded. The effect of this move would cause lots of pest species to invade these territories, causing harm to the native creatures and the people there, leading to food shortages and have unpredictable reactions to pesticides in the area.
Ant bodies are not equipped for all kinds of food, and the move up north may be detrimental to the natural bacteria found in and outside of their bodies. These bacteria help regulate their host’s diet, and not every kind of ant eats the same kind of food. Like humans, there are ants that are herbivores, carnivores or even omnivores. Moreau said the reality is that no species can migrate that far that quickly. They cannot change their entire lifestyle so rapidly: “They’re here due to evolution and will probably go extinct if they don’t make it in time.”
Moreau said her work has changed the way she runs her own life, and she cares deeply about conservation. “I am vegan, but I still believe in killing for preservation over long periods of time.” Though it sounds ironic on the surface, Moreau explained that all living creatures have such specific genetic codes, and there is no way for every single one to be the same within a species. “Just look in this room, we are all so different,” she told the students.
This method would mean preserving a few ants now, and then preserving a few ants in a couple decades. This process helps researchers see what is different about the ants within the species, and what these variations can say about the changing world.
Aside from the growing concerns of a changing environment, the idea behind changing cultural values is also dear to Moreau. As a woman in science, she plays a large role in advocacy. Women are emerging far more frequently in this field, and her life expresses to young people everywhere that anyone, not just women, can be at the core of scientific endeavors.
At the end of the graphic novel representation of Moreau, she urges everyone to “Look closely: nature’s full of little surprises. Go discover some of your own.”