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'Backyard Monsters': An ant chauffeur's story, set to Metallica

Steve Johnson

Tribune reporter

5:13 PM EDT, October 17, 2012

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If you go to "Backyard Monsters" at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, the new exhibition of big, animatronic insects and their much smaller, much more genuine counterparts, you probably won't catch wind of what it took to get some of the live insects there. Here's one story:

During Labor Day weekend, biology curator Doug Taron set off for New Orleans in his 2004 Honda Civic Hybrid. As he was going south, the remnants of Hurricane Isaac were coming north. He encountered fierce rains near Kankakee, plausible tornado warnings in Missouri.

Once in Louisiana, he found that the place New Orleans zookeepers had told him he could collect velvet ants — which look like wasps, but with a red abdomen — was flooded. Those ants ended up being sent in from Arizona. But his main goal, a colony of fungus-eating, leather-piercing leafcutter ants, was still available for purchase from New Orleans' Audubon Zoo. Taron strapped the 20,000-critter collective, in boxes, into an ice chest and then into his Honda's back seat, and he headed north, stereo on.

"The ants and I seem to share a taste for Metallica," he said, which he knows because "they didn't come out of the box" in protest.

At journey's end in Lincoln Park, Taron could add an experience to his bucket list and then check it off. "I've never been an ant chauffeur before," he said.

sajohnson@tribune.com

Twitter @stevenkjohnson

'Backyard Monsters'
When:
Saturday through Jan. 22
Where: Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, 2430 N. Cannon Drive
Tickets: $9 adults, $6 children; 773-755-5100 or naturemuseum.org