Another Reason Why Ants Don’t Have Traffic Jams

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EciBur13j

There’s a story going around about how ants never have traffic jams. It’s a fine bit of science about how ants adjust their speed and don’t overtake each other, leading to smooth, fast speeds down the formicid freeway.

But I wouldn’t recommend humans adopt ant traffic management strategies. The physics of being small gives ants an enormous advantage.

Ant are tiny compared to us, and collisions at their size involve vanishingly small forces (remember F = [m][a]?), even at high speeds. Ants can cruise along with nothing to lose; the cost of veering into an errant stone or oncoming traffic is a slight bump, barely felt. They pick up and move along.

Cars? Not so much. You can imagine how much quicker rush hour traffic would move if drivers were immune to accidents, fearless and fast. People would drive like ants.

Ant Course 2015: Arizona

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Arizona’s Chiricahua mountains, site of the Arizona ant course.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (actually, not a bad place for a myrmecologist), you have heard of Cal Academy’s famous “Ant Course”. This week-long intensive workshop on the taxonomy of our favorite animals has been running once per year for over 10 years now, and nearly everyone of a certain age who works in myrmecology has taken it, taught it, or both.

This summer’s course returns to its roots in southeastern Arizona. Space is limited and the course nearly always sells out, so apply early and apply hard. Click on the course flier below for more details, or visit the website.

AZflyer2

 

ANT COURSE 2015 August 6-16, Southwestern Research Station (SWRS), Portal, AZ, USA More info: http://www.calacademy.org/scientists/ant-course

DEADLINE FOR APPLICATION: April 1, 2015. Apply Here: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1Z5Fu8DHxqW5EGFkiLbxi4mHWpnc2Tn0vzmN5ctvXj1g/viewform?c=0&w=1

ANT COURSE will be taught at the Southwestern Research Station (SWRS) in Portal Arizona (http://research.amnh.org/swrs/). The Station is centered amid the richest ant fauna in North America.

PARTICIPANT ACCEPTANCE CRITERIA. – ANT COURSE is open to all interested individuals. Priority will be given to those students for whom the course will have a significant impact on their research with ants. An entomological background is not required. We aim to include students with a diverse interest in biology, including ant systematics, ecology, behavioral biology, genetics, and conservation. The high instructor to student ratio will allow students to receive individual attention. ANT COURSE is presented in English and limited to 30 participants.

COSTS. – Tuition for the 10-day COURSE is $475 for current students and $675 for non-students (including postdocs). In addition, the Southwestern Research Station (SWRS) fee for this period, covering dormitory room and board, is $670. Transportation costs between home and Tucson (air) or SWRS (auto) are to be borne by all participants.

SPONSORS. –California Academy of Sciences and Museum of Comparative Zoology.

2015 INSTRUCTORS : Brian Fisher (Coordinator), California Academy of Sciences; Stefan Cover, Museum of Comparative Zoology; Flavia Esteves, California Academy of Sciences; Bob Johnson, Arizona State University, Tempe; Josh King, University of Central Florida; John LaPolla, Towson University; Jack Longino, University of Utah; Corrie Moreau, Field Museum of Natural History; Scott Powell, George Washington University; Andrew Suarez, University of Illinois; James Trager, Shaw Nature Reserve; Walter Tschinkel Florida State University Tallahassee; Phil Ward, University of California Davis; Special Guests: Raymond Mendez, Howard Topoff.

A Blank Slate

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Empty specimen storage drawers at the University of Texas Insect Collection.

After some unpacking of boxes, assembling of microscopes, signing of paperworks, and drinking of coffees, I am now at the helm of Texas’s second largest insect collection. The University of Texas Insect Collection coalesced over the past decade or so largely through the efforts of my friend and photography co-conspirator John Abbott, and I feel I am borrowing the collection more than running it.

I suppose that’s always the case with biological collections, though. We hold in trust things those in the past deemed useful for their counterparts in the future.

The 2014 Holiday Print Sale!

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I am pleased to announce the return of the annual Holiday Print Sale, now in our third year! This year’s selection features 30 favorite photographs reduced up to 70% off regular pricing. Have a look:

Holiday Print Sale- Alex Wild’s Insect Photographs

 
Pieces are printed by the professional Bay Photo labs using high-quality papers and archival photo inks. These are not simple posters! Bay Photo will also custom mount, mat & frame images if you choose “add frames & more” when you check out.

Why the sale? I know a portion of my photos go to students looking for something buggy to hang on their walls, and to parents of budding young entomologists, and these folks are not in the demographic that typically plays in the fine art market. So I’ve assembled an affordable gallery of some of my best known and biologically informative natural history images priced near cost. An 8×12″ print, for example, is just $9.99. I hope you enjoy them!

Dasymutilla fine art print

Dasymutilla occidentalis velvet ant; 12×18″ print on a 3/4″ standout mount. Sale price $15.99/$42.99 unmounted/mounted. (Regular $60/$120)


 
Sale prices extend to January 1st. If you’d like your prints to arrive by Christmas under a 3-5 day shipping option, order by December 12th.

The Puppy Spider Is Not As Big As You Think

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While we’re on spider debunkings, Piotr Naskrecki’s “puppy spider” story is making the media rounds this week, spawning the usual juvenile Nopes and Kill It With Fires! With every re-telling the spider gets bigger, of course.

Not to rain on the Goliath spider parade, but what Piotr originally reported was:

they weigh up to 170 g – about as much as a young puppy.”

170 grams is big. By arthropod standards, it’s huge. But the spider is not, say, the Shelob people are imagining. For perspective, I’ve marked 170 grams on a standard puppy growth chart.
 
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Puppy spider is not a 3 week old Labrador. It’s the weight, at birth, of a Chihuahua. Big, sure, but you’re not going to saddle this thing up and ride it to work.

The spider looks huge in the photographs for another reason, too. Piotr used wide-angle lenses that exaggerate the size of foreground relative to background objects. This wide-angle macro effect is a technique that Piotr does especially well. And it makes big spiders look larger than life.

Anyway, if you’d like one of Piotr’s puppy spiders for your living room wall, he’s just put a print on sale for prices so low he can’t be making any money:

Photo copyright Piotr Naskrecki, all rights reserved.

 

Three Reasons Why Spiders Can’t Burrow Through Human Skin

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Australia's redback spider (Latrodectus)

 

Yesterday, you may have seen this amusing-yet-dismal failure of the news media. Hundreds of outlets breathlessly reported a tourist’s tale of a skin spider plowing a pustulated trail through his belly. Snopes dissects why the story is bogus; essentially, the sole source is the tourist himself. The poor kid was likely told he had scabies mites, or similar common affliction, and not knowing what a mite was he settled on the nearest arachnid he recognized. That, plus ingrained cultural arachnophobia and a media disinclined to turn down click revenue over such a silly matter as ethics, and the story goes viral.

Shoddy journalism aside, there is no plausible reason for any spider to burrow into skin, and no physical attributes that would allow them success at it, either. Spiders can’t do it for the same reasons giraffes can’t hover: the laws of physics just don’t work that way, not for the way spiders are built. Here are a few reasons why the story simply could not have happened as reported.

1. Spiders are active animals that need to breathe. That’s hard to do when trapped under skin, and spiders lack the breathing tubes of real skin-burrowers like botfly.

2. Spiders are too delicate. Animals that burrow are strong, compact, and stubby. Think of the bullet-like build and short, powerful legs of a mole or a wombat. Serious burrowers like earthworms lack legs altogether. What’s a spider? Pretty much the opposite. Inconvenient legs everywhere, and far too spindly and weak to burrow. (A few spiders do make soil burrows, but soil is a rather different and more forgiving medium).

3. Spiders lack an implement for opening a suitable entry hole. Spiders have fangs, which are thin and sharp and can appear scary, but if you’ve ever tried to dig a hole using only hypodermic needles you’ll appreciate the uphill battle a spider faces.

Also, there has never been a single confirmed observation of a skin-burrowing spider.

So, no. You don’t have to worry about skin spiders.
 

Alex Wild Photography In Diapause

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As you may have heard, Myrmecos Industries is moving its global headquarters from Illinois to the University of Texas/Austin. Starting in January, Mrs. Myrmecos will be a postdoctoral researcher on bee microbiomes, I will be UT’s new curator of entomology, and mini-Myrmecos will be dictating our domestic affairs and arranging the cats. We are all very excited!

With the move comes tough decisions. I have spent the past months pondering the fate of my photo business, as starting this month I will no longer be able to devote more than a few hours a week to it. By “business”, I mean the commercial side of the operation. I’m not putting down my camera, of course. That would kill me.

I have, for the present, settled on the following strategy. Effective immediately, here is what to expect in the transition.

Things that remain the same:

1. The Alex Wild Photography site will continue to receive updates and new images, as well as offering the usual prints, periodic print sales, and image licenses.
2. The BugShot workshops. Why mess with a good thing?

Things that change:

1. Private photo lessons and commissioned projects are discontinued. I may still consider the occasional request, but the timing and price will work around my new schedule.
2. My images will no longer be available via a 3rd party stock agency (Visuals Unlimited/Corbis.) Abandoning a workload-handling agency may appear counter-intuitive, but the stock industry is experiencing such turmoil that I no longer feel comfortable abrogating licensing rights when I won’t have time to monitor them as the ship sinks. Correspondingly:
3. The sole source of image licenses and permissions will be via the automated shopping cart on my website. I cannot guarantee I will have time to answer other licensing requests promptly.
4. Requests for free images may not be answered. If your intended unpaid use is explicitly covered by my image use policy, then you may proceed without prior permission. Otherwise, permission may be obtained via paid licensing on my website.

Once I am up and running in the UT collections I will reassess the state of things and adjust accordingly.

 

More On Pest Control Advertising: Orkin Takes The High Road

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Meanwhile, Orkin- that other pest control giant- adopts a softer, more subtle marketing strategy.

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Screen capture from Orkin’s website, displayed without permission as Fair Use commentary on Orkin’s marketing strategy.

Many people are reluctant to call pest control, perhaps because decades of environmentalism has softened our cultural attitude towards nature, or perhaps just out of guilt towards the wee household insects. In contrast to Terminix’s brute force fear campaign, Orkin projects a feel-good “Bugs are cool, but sometimes we do have to kill them”. I suspect this appeals to a great number of homeowners on the fence about whether they should use a commercial exterminator.

Of course, a company’s marketing front has little to do with the quality of the job they actually perform, so don’t take this as a recommendation.

(Disclosure: Orkin has purchased image licenses from me in the past, but has also used several of my photographs without permission. My relationship with the company is complicated…).

How To Lie With Pest Control Marketing

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Few major pest control companies are as awful in their marketing as Terminix. Consider:

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[2011 advertisement for Terminix]

The message is clear: Ants give you diseases, and our company can get rid of them for you.

True?

No.

Let’s be clear about the scare term “carrier”. Terminix would like us to think ants are carriers in the epidemiological sense- like an infected Ebola patient boarding a plane. But that’s a semantic sleight of hand.

The research on the topic of ant-borne diseases is rather more mild. Ants are only “carriers” in that they can physically transport bacteria found in the environment. That’s not surprising. Most things transport bacteria. Your shoes, for example, are excellent carriers of strep, sensu Terminix. Your own hands are even more effective.

Merely carrying bacteria, which everything does anyway, is a different matter than being effective at causing disease. And the evidence that ants are actually dangerous as infectious agents, rather than just theoretically so, is so weak that there are precisely zero known cases where an ant has ever infected a person with strep, staph, or salmonella.

Antweb’s AntBlog explains:

 …if an ant walks through an area densely populated with infectious bacteria, they track it along in quantities large enough to show up in a petri dish.

The good news: Petri dishes don’t have immune systems. The quantities of bacteria ants transport and slough off as they saunter across your counter tops will probably be small compared to the infectious dose for healthy humans. The quantities of bacteria that remain on the ants’ feet after taking the thousands of little ant-steps between a source of infection and your table would presumably knock off the vast majority of the bacteria, leaving too few to constitute an infectious dose.

So what I’m trying to say is: thought it is theoretically possible for ants to transmit infectious bacteria to humans, as far as I’m aware (other members of this blog, please speak up if you know better!) there are no records of ants being definitively implicated in someone catching a disease. As best as I can tell, all of the articles that reference ants’ potential to be vectors for infectious bacteria are based upon laboratory studies in which nothing besides some agar in a petri dish got sick.

Absent evidence of any real health threat, Terminix is just trying to scare you out of your money.