alexwild

Winter Ants Testing the Boundaries

Following my gallery opening last week in Minnesota, I was privileged to spend a couple hours poking around at Macalaster College’s beautiful Ordway Field Station on the banks of the Mississippi. Fall had advanced suddenly and the temperature was too cold for much insect activity. Of course, the ubiquitous cool-tolerant winter ants, Prenolepis imparis, were foraging.

Along the trail we happened across an unusual sight. About 100 ants in a cluster on the forest floor, moving cautiously around each other, sometimes lunging with open mandibles, sometimes cautiously tasting other ants, moving from ant to ant.

I am not 100% certain what they were doing, but the scene looked a great deal like the ritual battles known from other ant species. When two ant colonies meet, they sometimes estimate each other’s strength by engaging in a bit of pushing and shoving, apparently tallying the size and number of the opposition. This behavior is thought to allow them to retreat in the face of a stronger opponent before matters escalate into loss of life (see this 1981 work by Bert Hoelldobler for an example from honeypot ants.)

 

Photo details- Panorama: iPhone

Macro photos: Canon MP-E 65mm macro lens on a Canon EOS 5D Mk IV, f/13, ISO 200, 1/200sec, diffuse twin flash.

Myrmecos in the Twin Cities

Click to view large!

Here’s something unusual: an actual gallery of printed, high-quality Alex Wild prints!

Where is this rare beast? In Minnesota:

Smail Gallery – Olin-Rice Hall, Macalester College
Saint Paul, Minnesota
September 2018 to August 2019

As you may know, I am a digital creature. I do not often translate my files into physical prints. But my streak of lasting a decade as a pro photographer without staging a large showing has broken. Macalester College in Saint Paul has worked with me over the past few months to bring you “Ants: Alien Civilizations Among Us“. It features 70 of my pieces on metal or canvas, including a giant panoramic focus-stack I created specifically for the showing.

800 individual photographs were composited in a stacked micro-panorama of Messor cephalotes, an African harvester ant.  I created this nearly 5-foot wide piece, printed on a metal plate, exclusively for the Smail gallery. 

At the gallery’s heart is the Diversity Wall. Ants from all over the world, photographed alive and scaled proportional to actual size, are printed on high-quality aluminum plates and interspersed with softer images on canvas of ant scientists working. The effect surpasses even what I had planned. It looks stunning!

A few ant action shots.

The gallery is located in the atrium of Macalester’s science building, Olin-Rice Hall, and will remain until August 2019. If you are in Minnesota this year, I encourage you to have a look.

Facebook

At 10:15 this morning I deactivated my facebook account. I’ve had the account for over a decade. No more.

I can no longer in good conscience participate in a company whose actions- wittingly or no- have served to increase social and political ills around the world.

What could replace the facebook-sized void, which isn’t really a void since I don’t use it much anymore anyway? I don’t know, but let’s dust off this bloggy blog.

 

Dolichoderus, at last

One of the more common ants in eastern North America is, ostensibly, Dolichoderus. I’ve read that, while restricted to particular habitat types, within those bogs and pine forests they are supposed to be abundant. In theory.

Yet in my entire decades-long career as an ant guy, I have never once seen them alive in North America. Anywhere. It got to the point where I was embarassed to admit such a glaring failure.

Anyway. I broke down and finally begged Ant Guru James Trager to send me a few live workers, and James kindly took pity on me. Herewith, at last, photographs of our North American Dolichoderus:

Dolichoderus mariae – Peninsula State Park, Wisconsin, USA.
A grooming Dolichoderus plagiatus worker shows the protruding propodeum that is diagnostic for the North American species of this genus. Baileys Harbor Beach, Wisconsin, USA.

 

Dolichoderus plagiatus – Baileys Harbor Beach, Wisconsin, USA.

Introducing Tetramorium immigrans: a better name for the long-established pavement ant

No longer fighting over a name.

Meet Tetramorium immigrans. 

I have never been more pleased to report a taxonomic name change than this one. Long called “Tetramorium caespitum”, then “Tetramorium species E” once it became clear the Eurasian T. caespitum was a complex of cryptic forms, the pavement ant has spread across the world and is now among most common urban ants in North America. After decades of confusion, Herbert Wagner has published a fine monograph on the taxonomy of the species complex. Among Wagner’s many discoveries was that Santschi’s 1927 “immigrans” was valid for this world-traveller. An apt change, and a fine resolution of a long-standing problem.


source:

How Should Taxonomists Name Your Favorite Ants?

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