Real Men Like Ponerines

I’ve been thinking about why ant collectors fixate on particular groups. The collectors here know what I’m talking about. Given a choice, we’ll pass over Forelius in favor of Odontomachus. Brachymyrmex just doesn’t hold the allure of Leptogenys.

Particularly, we collectors like ponerines and poneromorphs. Most are tropical, rather wasp-like in appearance, and bear impressive stings. They are predatory.

Pachycondyla apicalis (Ponerinae): an interesting ant.

Yet, poneromorphs are a minority of ant species- perhaps 20%- and they don’t have the ecological weight of the rest of the family. The don’t aerate as much soil, they don’t recycle as much biomass, they don’t engage in as many symbioses. From a strictly logical perspective, we shouldn’t find them as interesting as we do.

Paratrechina longicornis, a non-poneromorph (Formicinae): nothing to see here!

So why the ponerophilia?

I’m running with several ideas:

  1. The “Rare Is Interesting” hypothesis. We like ponerines for the same reasons we like gold and diamonds- they’re aren’t as many of them, and rarity begets value.
  2. The “Noble Warrior” hypothesis. Ponerines are like lions & sharks, their hunting lifestyle appealing to the predatory primate in us on some subliminal level. We like ponerines, and not formicines, for the same reason the Discovery Channel holds Shark Week but not Cow Week.
  3. The “Size Matters” hypothesis. Many ponerines are large, visible insects that stand out from the crowds of frenetic little brown ants.

What do you think? Is there something I’m missing?

update: And, is this just a masculine issue? Mrs. Myrmecos has a thing for Polyrhachis, which is not a poneromorph at all.

25 thoughts on “Real Men Like Ponerines”

  1. I have to say I side with Mrs. Myrmecos. Poneromorphs are quite nice, but Polyrhachis are diverse and often gorgeous! And of course, you know my predilection for certain other formicines.

    (Thinking about it, Alex … Linepithema!!!?)

    1. To be honest, James, I have always thought of your taxonomic interests as something of an outlier- you don’t seem to show any of the ponerophilia that grips much of the myrmecological collector community.

      Much to your credit, of course.

  2. Hello! I am a girl and really like poneromorphs. The reasons you cited above: many of them are rare, and they are predators, powerfull warriors. The rarity makes me love at the same time Proceratium, Amblyopone, Thaumatomyrmex, and non poneromorphs beauties, like Stegomyrmex, Talaridris, Tatuidris… They are desired things for everyone, I think.

  3. Let me bring a biogeographical aspect here (sorry, I can’t help it) which is some kind of a derived version of your rarity hypothesis. Most of myrmecologists historically and even today come from temperate regions where Poneromorphs are either rare or absent. At the opposite they are much more common and abundant in the tropics and as such represent a novelty at the opposite of the already known subfamilies that are Dolichoderinae, Formicinae, Myrmicinae.

    What is new is always more exciting isn’t it?

    The same fascination is encountered with army ants or Attine, although their impressive behaviors might play an important role too.

    I actually made a Yahoooo, I got a new Hypoponera a few months ago, when I realized I got a new species for North Carolina.

    1. Ah, a 4th hypothesis: “Geographical Novelty”! I like it.

      I suppose a good test would be to take Indonesian myrmecologists and see how thrilled they are by Lasius.

  4. Alex:
    Perhaps not just any ponerines, just as Flavia noted. Hypoponera, as Jack wrote in his Ants of CR, provokes avoidance behavior. So may be size, plus the thick and nice exoskeleton with interesting sculpture. Remember many budding entomologists start first with beetles and butterflies: large and showy. The predator part has its allure but also the “primitive” angle of poneromorphs. I think this may be another attraction because it makes us imagine we are looking at some relict being that reeks of times and life long gone that we will never be able to sample in life.

  5. Roberto Keller

    The first time I saw a ponerine in the wild, a lone worker of Pachycondyla apicalis foraging, I was so excited that I grab it with my hand. Loud cursing followed. I have been the biggest fan of ponerines ever since. They are powerful creatures!

  6. To empathise with Mrs Myrmecos, perhaps it is a macho New World thing. My softer side has a thing about the Old World furry Meranoplus and variously spiny, spiky, sculptured Cataulacus. Do “ant collectors” go hunting for specific genera anyway?

  7. I’ve always liked poneromorphs for their rarity, like finding a Proceratium in a leaf litter sample. I also found some Ponera exotica. These aren’t big, powerful ants, but they do look cool compared to a Lasius. I also engaged in a futile search for Amblyopone trigonignatha, the ultimate rare ant. We have lots of tropical poneromorphs here at the USNM, but after seeing drawers full of Paraponera clavata, I have little desire to collect them.

  8. mostly rarity i would think, plus the larger size.

    this same fascination occurs when u see supermajors of some myrmicines. the rarity and extreme nature of the thing makes you go whoooaaa.

    so ponerines r ok, but obviously i’m into leafcutters more 😉

  9. George Waldren

    I study aculeate wasps, primarily those with apterous females (Mutillidae, Bradynobaenidae, Tiphiidae (Methocha, Brachycistis), etc.), so I only consider myself an ant guy when it comes to poneromorphs and pseudomyrmecines. It’s definitely the wasp-like appearance and powerful sting!

  10. I don’t know much about these ants but I was very impressed with the photo of Pachycondyla on what I think is the title page of Wheeler’s book Ants — I’ve set your (Alex’s) photo as my backdrop on the computer in the lab. I am right there with Roberto Keller. Though I haven’t seen them in the field, I would have done the same thing– thanks for the warning!

    I guess for me, its the striking form that’s the draw.

  11. I second Kelly Brenner here. Ponerines, to my eye, are quite more pleasing to look at. Their sculpturing is crisp and clear, with attractive lines and complexity. A given Dolichoderine or Formicine is matte, however, with many excellent exceptions (e.g. Echinopla).

  12. myrmicinae: Cephalotes, Cataulacus, and especially Talaridris mandibularis cuz it reminds me of the protagonist in Aliens, but there are so many neat ants….

  13. hmmmm…. I think that complex structure/pattern can easily draw our attention..best if this high complexity in shape and sculpture is achieved at ridiculous minimum sizes. If I had to say which groups I enjoy more, I would actually say Myrmecines more than Formicines. I definitely marvel at some Ponerines, they would be before Formicines in my cute/beauty rank, but still Myrmecines would be a the top for me 🙂

  14. There is definitely a personal bias, cause when looking to other group of insects my trend is kind of similar. I would marvel more at ..say, that Eucharid wasp (eucharitid 1) you posted sometime ago than to a Vespidae. I would like more an Ichneumonidae as well, because of that delicate body and unbelievable long ovipositors. So I am thinking that is not really a matter of size (whether bias to the smallest or the biggest) but more as how far insects can you go from the standard body plan and still be functional… There are certainly many times that I had to pause and say..”Really?? are you kidding me? what are those structures for?” or, “you needed to have such long spines / horns,?!!, such a long petiole?, wow! neat sculpture! (as when looking to a Gnamptogenys), or, such big eyes of yours (as when encountering a Gigantiops)”… don’t know…. certainly eye size matters to our perception of cuteness, I think. It seems that I have a very strong bias for external features I am afraid 🙁

  15. Poneromorphs rock! I just can’t get a rise from shriveled thin-skinned dolichoderines and formicines. Not to say that there aren’t beauties in either subfamily, but as a rule, poneromorphs are just a joy to behold and to ponder. Just look at the wide toothless “grin” of Leptogenys falcigera, which you just featured a while ago, or think of the petiolar fenestra of Ponera ants (why is it there?).

  16. Julie Stahlhut

    Joining the conversation late, but — count me in as a female with a special fondness for formicines. I’m always excited to see poneromorphs, of course, because they’re rare at my latitude. Maybe it’s just that formicines seem a bit more anthropomorphic to me. I think of a lot of Camponotus as being positively pet-like.

    I don’t think it’s the stinging vs. non-stinging thing that does it. I love big aculeates of all kinds. And although formicines don’t sting, my favorite native species in this area is Formica exsectoides. To paraphrase Ogden Nash, they are neither calm nor placid. 🙂

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