collecting ants at Jatun Sacha, an Amazonian reserve

Collecting ants at Jatun Sacha, an Amazonian reserve

I am a photographer and research scientist specializing in insects, especially ants, but also beetles, bees, wasps, and various other arthropods. My scientific background is in systematics, a broad field that includes the discovery, description, and classification of life and the inference of evolutionary relationships.

The word Myrmecos derives from ancient Greek for “ant” and reflects my fascination with the earth’s most abundant social organisms. Myrmecos blog, online since 2007, is an exploration of these and other small animals.

Email contact: alwild [at] myrmecos.net

Photo galleries: alexanderwild.com

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Research

 

Ant Systematics

Ants have long been a passion of mine, and I am occupied with several projects related to ant taxonomy, evolution, and systematics.

My evolutionary research focuses on closely-related groups of ant species, as I use patterns of recent speciation to infer how evolutionary processes may function across diverse landscapes and ecological contexts. I have worked extensively on the neotropical genus Linepithema, a group best known for the pestiferous Argentine ant L. humile, and have produced a molecular phylogeny and a taxonomic revision of the roughly 20 species. Ongoing phylogenetic research includes studies in the genera Pheidole, Azteca, and Simopelta.

My taxonomic work addresses some of the many remaining gaps in neotropical ant systematics, tending to focus on groups that are commonly encountered but lack modern taxonomic resources. I have also focused on describing the ant fauna of Paraguay, a landlocked country that sits at a fascinating transition zone among surrounding tropical, temperate, xeric, and mesic biomes.

 

Beetle Evolution

Coleoptera is the most diverse of the insect orders, yet the reasons behind their tremendous diversity are still poorly understood, in part because a strong phylogenetic foundation for the group is lacking. I am currently working on an NSF-funded “Assembling the Beetle Tree of Life” project in collaboration with researchers at the University of Arizona, Brigham Young University, CSIRO, Harvard University, and elsewhere to create the first comprehensive phylogeny of the major beetle lineages.

I am especially interested in generating new sources of genetic data for beetle phylogenetics, as previous efforts using mitochondrial genes and ribosomal genes have encountered difficulty resolving the ancient divergences at the base of the beetle tree. To that end, I developed protocols for several protein-coding nuclear genes previously unused in beetle systematics.

 

Systematics of Costa Rican Heterospilus wasps

The hyperdiverse genus Heterospilus (Braconidae: Doryctinae) is among the most common wasp genera in neotropical forests. These small parasitic insects inhabit a broad range of habitats and generally attack stem-boring beetle larvae, but little is known about the biology of most species.

Costa Rica contains approximately 300 Heterospilus. Because these wasps are abundant in insect samples from the region, the lack of knowledge about the number, nature, and identify of species formed a significant taxonomic impediment. Working with braconid experts Paul Marsh and Jim Whitfield, we produced a monograph of the Costa Rican species, a molecular phylogeny, a study of character evolution, and an interactive key to species. Ongoing research extends the project’s scope to other regions.


Selected Photography Credits

  • New York Times
  • National Geographic
  • Scientific American
  • Popular Science
  • Ranger Rick
  • Smithsonian
  • A&E Television Networks
  • California Academy of Sciences (San Francisco)
  • Audubon Insectarium (New Orleans)
  • Uncle Milton Industries
  • Nature
  • Science
  • McGraw-Hill
  • Houghton-Mifflin