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UMaine Today Magazine


Ants under fire

Fire Ant
Close-up of European fire ant showing stinger

Photo courtesy of Eleanor Groden

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As if mosquitoes and black flies aren't enough, homeowners in some Maine communities now have to worry about an aggressive red ant from Europe that can deliver a nasty sting. The European fire ant, Myrmica rubra, has already caused problems in Eastport and Boothbay Harbor. The heaviest concentrations are on Mount Desert Island; the ants also have been reported in Castine, Rockland, Owl's Head and Cushing.

With support from a $75,000 National Park Service grant, University of Maine entomologists Eleanor Groden and Frank Drummond are working with two graduate students and David Manski, natural resources director at Acadia National Park, to understand what causes the ant to be such a problem in Maine and how it might be controlled.

The researchers are excavating ant nests and observing ant activity throughout the day and under various weather conditions. They also are asking homeowners for help in determining how far the fire ant has spread in Maine.

The ant is less than the length of a pencil eraser long, 1/8 to 3/16 inches, has a stinger at the end of its abdomen and can form dense colonies.

"They live in nests in the ground. You might see a few red ants on a leaf and then realize that they're on every leaf in the area and running up and down the trunks of trees," says Groden, an associate professor in the UMaine Department of Biological Sciences. The ants may not bother someone walking through a moderately infested area, but if an individual actually steps on their nests and or pauses too long, the ants may emerge to deliver their painful stings.

The sting of this ant is like a wasp sting, says Groden. The welt can be up to 6 inches across with a small white raised area in the center. Pain can last from a few hours to a few days.

The European fire ant is a separate species from the fire ants that have infested millions of acres of livestock pasture in Southeastern states from Texas to South Carolina. To date, the Maine invader has followed a course typical of non-native species. It appears to have adjusted gradually to Maine's environment but now has replaced native ant species at many sites. For example, most of the 80 infested sites that have been studied at Acadia have only the European fire ant. Areas where native ants are present have multiple species co-existing.

"To the best of our knowledge, the first confirmed reports of this ant species in Maine came from Eastport in 1952," Groden says. "Problems were reported in the 1960s and 1970s in individual yards, but it wasn't until the 1990s that it began to cause problems on a community-wide scale."

European fire ants were first reported in the United States at Harvard University's Arnold Arboretum in Boston in 1908. Visiting there last year, Groden and her colleagues found that the ants are still present but have not formed the aggressive colonies that they have at sites in Maine.

The ants have been reported in the Buffalo, N.Y. area, and are native throughout Europe from Britain, Scandinavia and Russia to countries on the north border of the Mediterranean. However, they have not become pests in the vast majority of their native range, and Groden and her colleagues would like to understand why.

UMaine scientists are considering three possibilities. Other ants in those locations could out- compete the fire ants for food and/or nesting sites, or a pathogen such as a fungus could be keeping them in check. It also is possible that the fire ants in Maine originated from a particularly aggressive population that is not widely distributed elsewhere.

Learning the ins and outs of global commerce

Giving Maine business leaders the basic knowledge to help them globalize their companies is the focus of the International Business Certificate program, offered by the William S. Cohen Center for International Policy and Commerce in The University of Maine College of Business, Public Policy and Health, and the Maine International Trade Center (MITC).

In the International Business Certificate program, participants learn about management strategies, marketing, logistics, financing and other aspects of globalizing businesses. Faculty from UMaine, the University of Southern Maine and Maine Maritime Academy teach in five Friday- evening, Saturday-morning modular sessions, held over a nine-month period at the MITC headquarters in Portland.

The program, which began last year, is partially funded by a U.S. Department of Education grant.


Every fall, the richness of the international community at The University of Maine is celebrated at Culturefest, which features cultural exhibits, an international food court, talent show and children's activities. The daylong event by the Office of International Programs and the International Students Association culminates UMaine's International Week, offered in collaboration with the University's Canadian-American Center, the Maine Folklife Center and the Hudson Museum. Mirei Onozawa, left, and Aya Ochiai from Japan are two of the more than 425 international students and scholars from 75 countries enrolled at UMaine this academic year.

Prejudice and punishment

In the past 30 years, the criminal justice system in the United States has meted out increasingly harsh punishments for offenders, so that today, the U.S. imprisonment rate is the highest in the Western industrial world. Research by two University of Maine sociology professors suggests that racial prejudice against African-Americans is one of the underlying factors in the creation of public policies favoring crime control.

The findings by Steven Cohn and Steven Barkan are detailed in "Racial Prejudice and Public Attitudes About the Punishment of Criminals," part of an anthology, For the Common Good, edited by Robin Miller and Sandra Browning.

"Punitive measures might be favored within a democratic context (because of) a fear of crime, a concern for public safety and even a desire for retribution," says Barkan. "But within a democracy, racial prejudice is not a legitimate reason. Democracy is more than just the right to vote it also means equality of treatment and opportunity."

Cohn and Barkan analyzed data from a number of studies, including the General Social Survey, which draws from a random sample of the U.S. population, to demonstrate the effects of racial prejudice on public opinion about issues such as support for the death penalty, use of excessive force by police, and harsher treatment of criminals by the courts. That public opinion influences policymakers, who adopt tougher measures against criminals.

Cohn and Barkan found that whites who hold racially prejudiced attitudes against blacks are more likely to favor punitive policies.

"We're not claiming that everyone who favors punitive policies is motivated by racial prejudice," Cohn says. "But prejudice is so embedded in our society, it often operates in ways that people are not aware of. We need to be aware how that affects public policy, especially in areas such as criminal justice and welfare."

Cohn and Barkan's work contributes to the debate about how democracies balance the need to control crime with the need to protect citizens.

Teaming up to train teachers

The University of Maine and Maine Maritime Academy (MMA) are working together to help address the severe shortage of mathematics and physical science teachers.

A three-year pilot program that began this fall opens access for MMA students to the teacher-training sequence of courses offered by the UMaine College of Education and Human Development. It is intended to expedite the initial certification process for a select group of aspiring educators.

Successful completion of the required educational methods and foundations courses, plus development of a professional portfolio, will position the students to seek either conditional or provisional certification when they receive their baccalaureate degree from MMA.

In addition, MMA students can apply to UMaine's fifth-year Master of Arts in Teaching Program or the Master of Education in Environmental Science Education Program, beginning in January 2003. Both graduate programs lead to teacher certification.

"The MMA agreement taps into one more valuable source of potential science, math and technology teachers for the state's middle schools and high schools," says UMaine College of Education and Human Development Dean Robert Cobb. "It is a strong example of how Maine's higher education institutions can work cooperatively in the interest of Maine students at all levels."

Manufactured maritime materials

Some of the U.S. Coast Guard's aging marine facilities in the Northeast will get a face-lift using some of the newest building materials available as the result of research at The University of Maine.

UMaine's Advanced Engineered Wood Composites (AEWC) Center has a three-year, $500,000 contract with the Coast Guard to develop and test composite components for decks, walkways and retaining walls. The hope is that the engineered components will last longer, minimize environmental impact and be made from recycled materials.

UMaine engineers will design, develop, install and monitor wood composite materials made of 60 percent wood fiber and 40 percent polyolefin plastic for slip-resistant pier decks and retaining walls.

Plans call for the installation of composite decking at a working pier in New Haven, Conn. In addition, AEWC engineers also will design and test a 100-foot by 25-foot retaining wall, and compare the performance of four kinds of deck planks on the walkway at Owl's Head lighthouse near Rockland, Maine.

The repairs needed at existing Coast Guard facilities in the Northeast are estimated at almost $120 million. There are 45 stations in New England, seven of which are in Maine.

Wood/plastic composite material development is one of the fastest growing areas of the composites industry, says Douglas Gardner, professor of wood science and technology. For more than 10 years, scientists and engineers have studied the characteristics and production techniques for products using various wood species and plastic resins. Products being developed at AEWC also use sawdust and other wood wastes.

A blueprint for housing older adults

As the number of Maine residents over age 65 continues to increase, many communities cannot offer housing that meets older tenants' needs. The University of Maine Center on Aging and Bucksport, Maine, are teaming up to examine that problem and search for ways to solve it.

The Center on Aging and Bucksport Community Health Advisory Committee are collaborating on a systematic community-wide assessment and analysis of the housing needs and preferences of residents 65 years and older in the town.

The housing needs survey, expected to be completed early next year, is funded by a $15,000 grant from the Bingham Program, which is dedicated to advancement of medicine and healthcare in Maine.

"This survey will provide elders with a real voice in terms of constructing an informed blueprint of their future housing needs and preferences. I applaud the town of Bucksport for recognizing the importance of systematically planning for elder accommodation," says Lenard Kaye, director of the UMaine Center on Aging.

The project reflects Bucksport's desire to correct deficiencies in available housing and services for the elderly that were highlighted in the town's 2000 Health Plan.

Policymakers, housing programmers, environmental planners and advocates for the elderly will be able to utilize the survey data to establish long-range plans for development of affordable, appropriate housing for older adults.

Advocacy for community inclusion

A decade of developmental disabilities education, research and policy analysis, technical assistance, and dissemination activities is being celebrated by The University of Maine Center for Community Inclusion (CCI).

To mark the anniversary throughout the year, CCI will offer events and activities, including the inauguration of a Distinguished Lecture Series in Disability Studies, and a juried exhibit of art produced by persons with disabilities.

The center is part of a national network of University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, funded by the Administration on Developmental Disabilities, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The network is dedicated to ensuring interdependence, productivity and inclusion of people of all ages with disabilities.

CCI, directed by UMaine Associate Professor of Education Lucille Zeph, provides undergraduate and graduate interdisciplinary coursework in disabilities studies. Current research initiatives are being conducted in the areas of early childhood data systems, effective school reform and adolescent health. From the main offices at UMaine, and outreach offices in Augusta and Windham, CCI collaborates with a wide range of state, national and international partners to enhance the quality of life for individuals with disabilities and their families.

Predictability in preschoolers

Research conducted by a University of Maine Upward Bound high school student is being presented in November at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association National Convention held in Atlanta, Ga.

Veronica Segarra of Waterbury, Conn., now in her second year as a speech language pathology major at the University of Connecticut, will present a paper with Nancy Hall, UMaine associate professor of communication sciences and disorders, on "Predicting School Performance Using Preschool Language Measures." The research investigates the ability of preschool tests to predict how children with developmental language disorders will perform academically in later years.

Segarra conducted the research at UMaine's Upward Bound Regional Math-Science Center the summer before she entered the University of Connecticut. She attended UMaine's Upward Bound program for three summers.

"I'm not aware of any work conducted by a high school student that ever has been presented to the national convention. This is an extraordinary accomplishment," Hall says.

The research by Segarra and Hall built on previous studies, examining the correlation between nine language test scores in preschool and how the children performed on academic tests in elementary school. Their most significant finding was the correlation between the Vineland Communication Domain score and reading, spelling and writing test scores at age 9. The Vineland relies on parental report of communication abilities.

"The deficiencies (in children's language skills) reported by the parents may be the most significant areas to focus on improving during preschool," Segarra says.

Segarra and Hall recommend that future research concentrate on determining the most useful ways to capture a parent's understanding of a child's language skills.


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