Here’s a big, useful question: How does human activity affect ant populations across landscapes?

One could design any number of studies to answer this question, most involving lots of trudging about in the mud, or through swarms of mosquitoes, or laboring outside cell tower coverage (gasp!). Or, one could just sit back in one’s ergonomic office chair and harvest ant data from Google Earth.

ants_from_space

This satellite photograph shows land in the Paraguayan chaco under various amounts of disturbance. It also shows nests of the chaco leafcutter ant, Atta vollenweideri, erupting in white spots across the heavily disturbed land like pimples before a prom.

Several decades ago, J.C.M. Jonkman used aerial photographs from the same region to conclude that leafcutter nests accelerate succession from pasture back to forest. But there is a lot more that could be done, relatively easily, from Google’s massive archive. It’d make a tidy side project for the lazy myrmecologist.