Answer to the Monday Mystery

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Hypoponera opaciceps (Mayr). Lectotype specimen from Sta. Catarina, Brazil, photographed at the Natural History Museum in Vienna in 2004. I am placing this image in the public domain.

Monday’s challenge required knowledge of several rather arcane topics: myrmecological history, taxonomic methods, Brazilian geography, and ant identification. Nonetheless, I was impressed with how quickly you guys came up with the answers.

Points are awarded as follows: 9 to Julio Chaúl for rapid-fire correct responses, and 1 to Katherine, for being the first to pick Vienna (=Wein) as the city, if not the exact institution.

In the early days of modern taxonomy, researchers like Vienna’s Gustav Mayr would describe new species from series of several specimens, referring to all as “types”. On occasion these series turned out to contain more than one species, raising the question (not begging the question, for Christ’s sake. Raising. We have standards here.) to which biological species a Latin name is supposed to refer. To remove this ambiguity, taxonomists began selecting single individuals- lectotypes- from the original series to serve as unique name-bearers. The ant pictured above is Walter Kempf’s designated lectotype taken from Mayr’s series of Ponera opaciceps, now in the genus Hypoponera.

5 thoughts on “Answer to the Monday Mystery”

    1. Here’s where a background in ant taxonomy is helpful. “G. Mayr” = Gustav Mayr, an important early ant taxonomist working in Vienna in the mid 1800s. His type specimens reside in Naturhistorisches Museum Wien.

  1. On a historical note, the following comes from an article I wrote for the RES journal “Antenna”

    [Following a first work in 1853] The now Med. Dr. Gustav L. Mayr wrote the “Formicina austriaca” (Mayr, 1855). This set the benchmark for all ant taxonomy, including full taxonomic definitions and, for the first time, dichotomous keys The only thing missing, apart from five examples of wing structure, were drawings. In the “Die Ameisen des baltischen Bernsteins”, there are over 100 accurate, high quality drawings (Mayr, 1868). Mayr’s last ant taxonomy paper was published in 1907. All this from a man who was a schoolmaster or principal and was never employed in the Vienna Museum. In the same era, Frederick Smith at the British Museum was writing minimalist descriptions in the style unchanged since Fabricius in 1787.

    Now we come to Auguste Forel, who as he recorded in 1922, began publishing in 1869. In 1920, he wrote in his 231st paper how the glaucoma prevented him from continuing to describe ants. His first major ant work was his 1874, “Les Fourmis de la Suisse”, in which he expressed his admiration for the works of Mayr and related how he adopted Mayr’s methods for the analytical tables. In a curious move, Forel noted how it was contrary to reproach Mayr for “la trop grande multiplication des genres”. In his short biography of Forel’s hyperproductive protégé, Felix Santschi, Wehner noted how all eminent myrmecologists before Forel (1874) had strictly used binomials (Wehner, 1990). Forel introduced the deliberate splitting of species into subspecies and variations, although he used the term “race” and Santschi used “stirps” for these lower levels. Forel himself said that he used “races” for species that were badly determined or showed transitions between them, one could also call them “sub-species”. Seemingly he felt this would be helpful for dealing with intermediate or aberrant forms. The difficulties this system imposed were summed up by André (1881): “with the ants the separation of species presents great difficulties, and nothing is harder than to decide where the species ends and the variety commences”. This muddled and muddling thinking prevailed for the next 80 years. Its legacy still makes it difficult for any one trying to sort out field collections and to evaluate variations in behaviour, etc. Many of Forel’s taxonomic descriptions were quite brief, often based on comparisons with other species (thus assuming the reader had access to the earlier publications) and very rarely had illustrations. He did not produce any comparative works or keys.

  2. A small correction is necessary: “Vienna (=Wein)” should read “Vienna (= Wien)”.
    Wein is the German (and Austrian) word for wine, and though at Wien a lot of wine is being drunk the citie’s name means something different 😉

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