The Great Ant Escape and Naked Mole Rats

One of my favorite experiences while pursuing my graduate degree happened 15 years ago while attending the Ant Course, which is a collaboration between the California Academy of Sciences and Harvard University that provides unique training to entomologists at the Southwestern Research Station in Portal, Arizona. I loved this course on many levels, but meeting and learning from the legend, Ray Mendez, was a highlight.  


silence of the lambs mothRay Mendez is an entomologist and the ‘original insect wrangler’.  Like myself, Ray has a love of conservation, storytelling and he found success by following his passions. Ray is famous for many things — training moths to attack on command in the movie Silence of the Lambs, special effects in the movie Aliens, designing Ronald McDonald and Hamburglar for McDonalds, and his mole-rats, which were featured in the 1998 avant-garde Errol Morris movie “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control”. His house was amazing because it had many colonies of ants in his biodiverse garden and … naked mole rats.

Wait! Why does this entomologist have a fascination with naked mole rats, which he keeps in his home? Naked mole rats are rodents, but they live in communities like those of many colony insects.  

naked mole rat
Naked Mole Rat

They have a queen and workers, just like ants and bees. They are not the most attractive animal, in my opinion, but they are a favorite target of researchers because they rarely get cancer, are resistant to some types of pain, and can survive up to 18 minutes without oxygen. 

Ray builds ant observation exhibits for museums and for filming documentaries. In the heading picture Ray is showing us a colony of ants that accidentally broke open and were escaping. Luckily, Ray was surrounded by entomologists trained in ant capture. I also had very little grey hair then (I’m on the right).