Ant-man shares love for ants on Instagram

Mr Wong, who recently discovered a new ant species, is hoping to raise $3,000 via a US-based science crowdfunding website for scientific journal publication fees and to buy better equipment for his research.
Mr Wong, who recently discovered a new ant species, is hoping to raise $3,000 via a US-based science crowdfunding website for scientific journal publication fees and to buy better equipment for his research.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

He may not have the powers of Marvel superhero Ant-Man, who can shrink himself to the size of the insects. But aspiring ant researcher Mark Wong has such a strong passion for studying them that he often spends his weekends crouching close to the ground in nature reserves, eye to eye with his favourite bugs.

"I find them incredibly fascinating; there are so many different species, each with its own unique behaviour," said Mr Wong, a 25-year-old civil servant.

Trap-jaw ants, for instance, can open their mandibles (mouthparts) very wide and snap them shut rapidly at over 2,300 times faster than the blink of an eye.

This action not only helps the ants capture prey, but is also an escape mechanism - it can catapult them into the air away from potential threats, Mr Wong said.

"The amount of force generated by that movement is very large, and it is intriguing how these ants evolve and utilise such a unique ability."

To fuel his appetite for ant research, he set up a makeshift laboratory in his bedroom, complete with field and lab equipment borrowed from other scientists. He also has a cupboard stocked with ant specimens, some of them soaked in ethanol for preservation.

"When I was young, I used to take other insects home, including grasshoppers and praying mantids," said Mr Wong.

When he was 11, praying mantids swarmed the balcony when he did not close a breeding tank properly.

On another occasion, a centipede that he rescued from school escaped from a container with holes into his parents' bathroom. "I've given my parents several scares over the years, but I am thankful that they've grown accustomed to my insect idiosyncrasies now," he said.

Recently, he discovered a new ant species while looking at the diversity of native ants, which have not been well-studied.

As he is not a full-time researcher and has little access to traditional sources of funding, he is hoping to raise money via a United States-based science crowdfunding website, experiment.com.

More than $500 has been pledged to his project, titled Discovering The Ants Of Singapore, since it was listed last week.

He hopes to raise $3,000 by next month, and intends to use the money for scientific journal publication fees and to buy better equipment.

He notes that insects are not as well-loved as other animals, but hopes to draw more attention to them through his Instagram account, @ants_of_singapore, where he posts close-up photographs of Singapore's ants.

The need to be careful about money has spurred him to innovate. His close-up shots of dozens of different ants are not shot with state-of-the-art equipment, but achieved by aiming the camera on his iPhone through the eyepiece of the microscope. It is not always easy to get the right distance and angle between the phone and the microscope, he said.

Although the quality of his photographs does not comparewith those captured by a DSLR or an imaging station, the beauty of ants and interesting facts about their biology still shine through, Mr Wong added.

"From our perspective, they may look just like red or black dots, but, up close, you start to see a variety of unique body shapes and beautiful structures, which I'm sure more people would appreciate if only they got the chance to see them."

Audrey Tan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 26, 2016, with the headline 'Ant-man shares love for ants on Instagram'. Print Edition | Subscribe