Ted Schultz

Research Entomologist and Curator of Hymenoptera
Dr. Ted Schultz collecting ants in the field. Photo by Ana Jesovnik, Smithsonian.
Dr. Ted Schultz collecting ants in the field. Photo by Ana Jesovnik, Smithsonian.

Dr. Ted Schultz is an entomologist at the National Museum of Natural History. As a kid, he loved going outside and catching animals. He kept insects in jars, as well as lizards, turtles, tadpoles, and other creatures. When Ted was 7 or 8 years old, his mom gave him a book called The World of Ants. The book showed that ant colonies have workers and a queen, and that all members of the colony cooperate to raise new, daughter queens that take off and start new colonies. The book also revealed that some ant species engage in warfare, enslave other ant species, herd aphid "cattle," and, most amazing of all, grow mushrooms for food.

How could insects with such tiny brains do such complicated things? That book sparked a lifelong interest in social insects, but it wasn't until his early thirties that Ted decided to study biology. He spent seven wonderful years in graduate school and then started his current job at the Smithsonian Institution.

Today Ted spends most of his time trying to figure out how fungus-farming ants first evolved 55-60 million years ago and how they have coevolved with their fungal partners. He analyzes data from ant and fungal genomes using computer programs to reconstruct evolutionary history — kind of like computer games on steroids. He goes on long trips to South America to locate rare fungus-farming ant species, including "primitive" species that haven't changed much in millions of years. It's the next best thing to a time machine. Understanding how ants have managed to successfully practice sustainable agriculture for over 50 million years is fascinating in and of itself, but understanding ant agriculture might help us to improve human agricultural methods.