Portrait by Mark Wallheiser
This is pretty freaking amazing, and gives new meaning to the term "sacrifical casting." Retiree Walter R. Tschinkel is an entomologist and former professor of Biological Science at Florida State University. He recognizes ants as "some of nature's grand architects" and, curious to understand their self-created habitats, devised a clever (if cruel) way to do it: By pouring molten aluminum down into the hole.
Unsurprisingly, the ants die in the process. But after the aluminum cools and Tschinkel has completed a meticulous excavation, he unearths these wondrous, chandelier-esque shapes revealing the alien architectures of the colony.
Tschinkel has discovered that colonies can be up to twelve feet deep and house between 9,000 and 10,000 workers.
If you're wondering how he can tell how many ants were in there, he started doing this in the '80s by making plaster casts, which did not vaporize the ants. By breaking apart the plaster, he could count the little buggers. (BONUS: Watch the Video of the Process after the jump)
So why the switch from plaster to aluminum? For the same reason manufacturers will make car parts out of one but not the other. "The disadvantage of plaster casts is that they break easily so after you dig them up, you have to glue the pieces back together again," Tschinkel said in a 2008 interview. The aluminum has proven more robust.
In addition to aluminum, he also uses zinc "for its low melting point," and harvests both materials from old objects.
I get the zinc free from old anodes at marine shipyards. Zinc corrodes and steel doesn't, so they attach zinc bars to the hull of the ship, and replace them when they are about half corroded away. Sometimes I use aluminum from old aluminum scuba tanks. We place charcoal in an insulated garbage can, and put the aluminum in the bottom half of a steel scuba tank to melt metal [placed in a smaller container within the tank and then pour the molten metal down the nest opening].
Here's a video showing the process: