On Saturday, November 13, 2004 the fire department of Mont-Saint-Hilaire and Gault Nature Reserve organized a rescue simulation as a traning exercice. This gave the opportunity to execute the procedures for emergency intervention.
The Ants that Quietly Rule Mont St. Hilaire
-- by Jonathan Shik
Whether they be crawling among cracks in the sidewalk or scurrying across the kitchen floor, most of us—even those of us who prefer to stay indoors, are very familiar with ants. People in all ages have been fascinated by the highly ordered civilizations of ants that are complete with queens, workers, slaves, soldiers, warfare, agriculture of fungi, even tending of aphid livestock! There are even ants that have no workers, who just live in the nests of other species and let those ants do their work for them. Many have remarked upon the similarities between ant social structure and our own, even going so far as to make analogies between the function of a colony and the structure of the human brain.
While an individual ant might be very small, a colony of ants is often referred to as a "superorganism," impacting its surroundings like a much larger organism. These impacts are some of the most important in maintaining the natural world. Primarily important is their sheer abundance—Holldobler and Wilson (1990) estimate that in rainforests, ants and termites represent 1/3 of all living things! Even more impressive is the activities they perform. They have been known to turn more soil than earthworms, are very important predators, plant eaters, and waste product degraders.
They even play an important role as forest landscape architects! For instance, over the course of millions of years, many plants have come to depend upon ants for the dispersal of their seeds. Many violets for instance have evolved little fat bodies called elaiosomes on their seeds that attract ants. The ants then bring the seed to their nest, eat the elaiosome and deposit the seed unharmed in their trash pile within their nest. The seed, in effect gets planted in a nutrient rich, constantly moist, and actively defended environment.
In the tropical rainforests are found a vast diversity of ants, many of which have not even been scientifically described yet. For instance, E.O Wilson found 43 species (more than on the entire British Isles) of ants living on one tree in the Panamanian rainforest! In Quebec are known about 120 species of ants. During the summer of 2002, I wanted to conduct a research project on the ecology of the ants of Mont St. Hilaire. I soon discovered that nobody had even described a list of species that were there to begin with. I had to start from the ground up, trying to establish an inventory of all the species, and see if I could figure out how those species were distributed in various habitats throughout the mountain. I used pitfall traps, tuna and jelly baits, hand collections, and litter samples in six different habitat types to get a picture of the ant diversity. I also searched under rocks, in rotting logs, under leaves in the litter, and amongst the vegetation throughout the whole mountain (10km²).
What I found was very surprising. It turns out that Mont Saint Hilaire has an astounding 39 species (almost 40% of all Quebec ants) which is the most that has ever been found at a locality in the province! I spent a week this past December working under the supervision of Dr. André Francoeur an ant specialist (myrmecologist) working in Chicoutimi, Quebec. With his help, I was able to learn the subtle characters used to distinguish between the ant species of Quebec.
These ants are spread over 17 genera. Amongst this diversity is Amyblypone pallipes (Haldeman), a primitive, slow moving, species with very small eyes that you will never see foraging but need to almost luckily stumble upon. While Amblypone pallipes has colonies of about 13-30 workers, I also found massive colonies of Aphaenogaster rudis (Emery) comprising at least 100's of ants. These ants were found in nearly every habitat type at both jelly and tuna baits, under rocks, in logs, even living inside mossy hummocks!
Some ants were found only once or twice during the whole summer which indicates that they are probably very rare, while some were encountered on a daily basis. For instance, Leptothorax ambiguous (Emery), was found only once, at a tuna bait in the overgrown disturbed field called the Pre. Other species were even found invading the research center where we were living such as Camponotus pennsylvanicus (Degeer). Ants ranged in behavior from the aggressive massively jawed major worker of Camponotus novaeboracensis (Fitch) who would dismember any other ant placed in the same vial, to the minute and timid Solenopsis molesta (Say) who could barely be seen with the naked eye. Some species such as Tetramorium caespitum (Linneus) were found only near human habitations near Lac Hertel, while some species such as Dolichoderus plagiatus (Mayr) were found only at Rocky summit. Some species, especially Formica glacialis (Wheeler) were even found tending aphids. In this relationship, ants shepherd little honeydew secreting insects on the leaves and stems of plants feeding off of the honeydew at will.
The types of research that could be performed using this baseline of knowledge are limitless. I am currently trying to understand why the mountain has so many species of ants. Could the diversity be because the forest is "old growth" meaning that it was never cut? Maybe it represents a pre-human picture of what the ants of the St. Lawrence Valley were like. Although still preliminary, I have been finding that many of the rare ant species seem to occur near areas of heavy human traffic. Maybe humans have inadvertently either imported ants or created habitat disturbances that favor the introduction of outside ants.
Future work might involve studying the occurrence of ant-seed dispersal, looking at how ant species compete with each other for resources, and creating a more detailed picture of how ants are distributed around the mountain especially in relationship to various plant communities and soil conditions. This summer, I will collect a little more around the mountain, searching for some other species that Dr. Francoeur and I hypothesize are present. Regardless of what we find, it will already have been established that Mont St. Hilaire represents a special place for those not only interested in this amazing insect, but also interested in the forest as a whole.
McGill's Gault Nature Reserve obtains increased protection
March 6, 2003 -- media release
André Boisclair, Minister of State for Municipal Affairs and the Metropole, Environment and Water and McGill University Principal Heather Munroe-Blum, have given a boost this morning to the supporters of Mont Saint-Hilaire by signing an agreement of principle to further protect the Gault Nature Reserve of McGill University and the mountain.
By designating the Gault Nature Reserve of McGill University as a "nature reserve on private land" under Act 129 on the conservation of the natural heritage, the Government of Quebec joins McGill University and its partners in the Mont Saint-Hilaire Nature Conservation Centre to give greater protection to the Gault Nature Reserve and its immediate surroundings. In 1978 this area was the first Canadian site to be designated as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere Program.
Thanks to McGill's efforts -- in accordance with the condition of Brigardier Andrew Hamilton Gault's bequest to the University of his 10 sq. kilometer estate at the summit of Mont St.Hilaire in 1958 "...that its beauties and amenities may be preserved for all time to come, not only to the immediate interests of the university itself, but through its corridors of learning, as a great heritage for the benefit and enjoyment of the youth of Canada." -- visitors can admire today the splendor of a countryside which dazzled Frère Marie-Victorin 74 years ago. In 1929 the author of La Flore Laurentienne wrote: "What a dazzling experience! The whole mountain, the enchanting power of the harmonious greens of the maples, beeches, oaks and birches, and in the bottom of the treasure-chest, the roughly-cut opal of Lake Hertel. Before our eyes, like the open page of an atlas, is spread a vast portion of the Laurentian Shield! In a single glance we embrace the entrance to Lake Champlain and the mouth of the Richelieu, Saint-Hyacinthe and Montreal, and the villages which spread out from the river all the way to the American border".
In designating the Gault Nature Reserve as "nature reserve on a private land" the Government of Quebec is helping McGill University in its quest to preserve this precious little piece of "old growth" forest. It is the old-growth character that contributes to the special value of the reserve for teaching and research, and also that sets it apart from the more disturbed forests on the other Monteregian Hills and in the surrounding St. Lawrence River Valley.
Minister Boisclair also announced a $150,000 grant for the renovation of the McGill University Gault Nature Reserve's visitors pavilion as well as for improvements to the public areas and to the education activities which are offered jointly by McGill University and the Mont St. Hilaire Nature Centre. The Mont St. Hilaire Nature Centre is McGill's close partner in the management of visitors' access and maintenance of the Gault Nature Reserve's public area.
McGill Principal Munroe Blum is delighted with Minister Boisclair's position that Mont Saint-Hilaire should assume a leadership role in an projected committee to study the best way to protect the Monteregian Hills. Representatives of the Nature Centre and of McGill University would participate in the committee.