How Should Taxonomists Name Your Favorite Ants?

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Are these two Temnothorax, or one Temnothorax and one Protomognathus?

Are these two Temnothorax species, or one Temnothorax and one Protomognathus?

Last year, a team of Antweb-affiliated myrmecologists published an evolutionary study concluding, among many results, that a slate of socially parasitic genera had evolved from within their host genera. The names of parasitic genera were subsequently sunk. Inclusion of derived groups in their parent genera has been standard practice for decades as a way to keep names consistent with ancestry.

But a number of myrmecologists do not approve of their favorite ants losing their names, and struck back with a strongly worded opinion in Insectes Sociaux this week:

We contend that banning all paraphyletic groups while simultaneously executing binominal Linnaean nomenclature results in a taxonomy going off the rails.

The dissenting authors make a lengthy argument about information content, evolution, and practicality, but the logic distills to, “the sunk genera look different, and we feel it more useful that the difference is reflected in a unique name.” If this argument looks familiar, it is the same case put forth by Ernst Mayr’s “Evolutionary Taxonomy” school in the 1960s and 70s. This was not a winning argument. Most biologists found disagreements about trait differences subjective compared to the relatively clarity of ancestry, and taxonomists today generally agree that recognizing paraphyletic groups is more confusing than the alternatives.

I have little personal experience with the genera in question. From my perspective as an outsider, I had to look up Epimyrma in Bolton’s catalogue to figure out what kind of an ant it was. Formicine? Myrmicine? Had I known it was basically a parasitic Temnothorax, I’d have been that much ahead of the game. Monophyly is information; paraphyly less so. But utility is a question of perspective and context, I suppose, and I can empathize with those who regularly work with these ants. Treating these distinct species as congeners may be as awkward as attending a party where everyone is named Jayden.

Still, given the volumes of vituperative ink spilled a half-century ago in the cladism wars, and the weight of the pro-monophyly consensus among all biologists, I suspect this renegade group of ant scientists will be fighting an uphill battle.

Disclosure: I eclosed as a myrmecologist from Phil Ward’s lab, so of course I am not without my allegiances.


Sources: Seifert, B. et al 2016. Banning paraphylies and executing Linnaean taxonomy is discordant and reduces the evolutionary and semantic information content of biological nomenclature. Insectes Sociaux doi: 10.1007/s00040-016-0467-1

Ward, P.S. et al 2015. The evolution of myrmicine ants: phylogeny and biogeography of a hyperdiverse ant clade (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Systematic Entomology, 40: 61–81. doi: 10.1111/syen.12090

2016 BugShot Insect Photography Workshop: May 12-15 in Austin, Texas!

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I am extremely pleased to announce the 2016 BugShot Insect Photo Workshop! The event will be held for the first time in Austin, Texas, and will be instructed by Piotr Naskrecki, John Abbott, and myself. Our 3 1/2 day event will cover basic techniques in macrophotography in the field and in the studio, methods for working with live insects, and advanced techniques in focus-stacking and high-speed flash.

"Solenopsis invicta - fire ant worker"

A focus-stacked image of a red imported fire ant, one of many subjects and techniques we will cover in Austin.

 

As usual, our location is a site of considerable natural beauty, with rustic lodging and classrooms on site, with nearby hotels for those who prefer more upscale accomodation. We will be at McKinney Roughs Nature Park, a 1,900 acre tract of woodlands, meadows, and canyons. These workshops are a real highlight of my year, not just for the nature and the photo nerdery, but for the community of wonderful people that has coalesced around the BugShot events. If you haven’t been yet, you should try to this year. We’d love to have you!

BugShot 2016 Registration

Last year’s California workshop sold out within a week, so if you’re thinking of attending, you may need to sign up quickly.

***Update (December 19, 2015): BugShot 2016 is sold out. Stay tuned for our next workshop!

Some links:

Try Your Hand At Introductory Entomology, Part II

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And now, an excerpt from my second mid-term exam for the BIO 453L class. Good luck!

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8. Australia was able control its infamous bush fly problem by importing several species of:
a. Dung beetle
b. Robber fly
c. Orb-weaving spider
d. Green lacewing

9. In your new job as a forensic entomologist, you receive a sample of insects collected by police from a body discovered in a park. The sample contains mostly beetles in the family Dermestidae and moths in the family Tineidae. It is autumn and the weather has been cool. Would you estimate the PMI (=time of death) to be:
a. Within a day.
b. Within 2-3 days.
c. Between 4 days and 2 weeks.
d. More than 2 weeks.

10. Which insect order is indispensable, as cacao’s required pollinator, to the production of chocolate?
Continue reading →

Try Your Hand at Introductory Entomology

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Looking for a challenge? Here are a few questions from the midterm examination of my current Entomology course.

29. Which of the following animals’ life cycles is most likely to include a puparium?
a. house fly
b. silkworm moth
c. monarch butterfly
d. rove beetle

30. Sclerotization is the process by which:
a. spiracles close to prevent water loss
b. coremata release pheromones as a sexual attractant
c. the exocuticle hardens following ecdysis
d. the wax layer is formed as a barrier to water loss Continue reading →

Copyright Chronicles: A Viral Encounter With Landon Dowlatsingh

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It’s been a few months since I’ve posted a rollicking internet copyright yarn. Not that there haven’t been infringements. Those are constant. It’s just that most are overly pedestrian- a pest control coupon that’s removed on request, for example. Not worth blogging. This one, however, involves a barely literate YouTube host pretending to be a lawyer, and his messages are simply too bizarre to pass up sharing.

Infringement

A screen capture of Mr. Dowlatsingh presenting my photographs.

I won’t bore you with the details of the infringement beyond the basics: 6 photographs of driver ants, most with my name cropped out, uploaded twice to a popular YouTube tabloid without being credited or licensed. The infringer responded to my formal copyright notice by committing perjury, claiming to Youtube that he had rights to my work and that my notice was mistaken.

Thinking the rights grab a bold move, I emailed him. Our correspondence follows:

Continue reading →

The Ant Daisy Chain, Described

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You may remember a recent viral video showing an undescribed predatory ant behavior. It turned out that myrmecologists Christian Peeters and Stéphane de Greef had observed these ants in the field, but they’d not assembled enough data to publish, leaving us all in the dark about how the ants coordinated the amazing millipede-hauling chains.

With a bright internet spotlight on the behavior, Christian and Stéphane returned to the project and have just published a detailed description in Insectes Sociaux. The video alone is worth a thousand words:

 


source: Peeters C, De Greef S. 2015. Predation on large millipedes and self-assembling chains in Leptogenys ants from Cambodia. Insectes Sociaux doi: 10.1007/s00040-015-0426-2

What Does A Bullet Ant Sting Feel Like?

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I was stung by a bullet ant last week in Costa Rica. On purpose.

Paraponera clavata

Ow.

 

How did it feel?

Bearable. Given this species’ fearsome reputation, I was expecting worse. It certainly hurt, though.

It wasn’t just the initial sear from the sting’s penetration, imparting all the sharpness one would anticipate from a relatively large hymenopteran, but the way the pain sank beneath the skin.

The bullet ant has a reputation for feeling like a firearm wound. Having never been shot, I can’t make much of the comparison. I imagine an actual shooting would be far more traumatic, but all the same I understand where the name comes from. A Paraponera sting feels more profound than the average insect sting. Like tissue or bone damage, it is a deep throbbing ache that crescendos over several hours. Unlike a honey bee sting, whose sharpness gives way quickly to a dull itch, the bullet ant’s sting is the gift that keeps on giving. Less a gunshot, I suppose, than the lasting pain following a solid crowbar to the arm. Although bearable, mine still ached when I went to bed 8 hours later. All pain was gone in the morning.

We tend not to make much of where on the body we’re stung, but stings are like real estate. Location, location, location. The forearm is a relatively mild substrate, a safe place to experiment with stings. I was once zinged on the tip of the nose by a common honey bee. Holy bejeezus. I’ll take twelve bullet ants to the arm before I wish to relive that one.

(Special thanks to Andrés Rojas and Erica Parra for planning the session and wrangling the ants! For more gruesome bullet ant entertainment science, see them and others getting zinged at StingFest 2015).

 

Ringo the Cottonwood Borer

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Plectrodera scalator – Austin, TX

 

 

The postdoctoral researchers in Nancy Moran’s lab here at UT have adopted a local longhorn beetle and, for reasons that remain mysterious, named it “Ringo”. I can only hope they weren’t punning on Beetles/Beatles.

Ringo was kind enough to pose for me in the most makeshift of photo studios. Lacking time to assemble a proper studio whitebox, I took the beetle to a small, white-painted room and fired a couple off-camera strobes at the ceiling.

Photo details: Canon 6D, 100mm f/2.8 macro lens, two off-camera strobes.