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Romance of Ants at the Field Museum

Forget the Bears. Forget Wrigley Field. Forget the Sears Tower Big Willie.

If you’re in Chicago, what you really want to do is head over to the amazing Field Museum. They’ve just opened a small exhibit, The Romance of Ants, a life-size comic book story about Field Museum ant expert Corrie Moreau and her fascination with the little creatures.

photos by Karen Bean

The exhibit features artwork by cartoonist Alexandra Westrich, live harvester ants, and some familiar looking photographs by, um, me. I’ve not been up to see Romance of Ants in person yet, so I can’t vouch for it other than to say it looks stylish from from the photos. But consider this: the display has already gone over so well that the museum decided to extend it for an extra year, until January 2012.

If you don’t get a chance to see it, there’s also a web page.

Answer to the Monday Night Mystery

What were those fabulous fly fails?

Sarcophagidae (a flesh fly)
Ichneumonidae (a parasitic wasp)
Asilidae (a robber fly)
Chironomidae (a midge)

The order of fail, from least to most, is 4, (1,3 tied), 2.

Points are awarded as follows. 8 to Chris Grinter for the identifications, and 2 to Gunnar for being the the first to correctly pick the ranking.

The rank question is essentially about the fly phylogeny and how to read it, and the secret was to know that the robber fly and the flesh fly are both equally distant from a mosquito.

What’s the big deal with Nowak, Tarnita, and Wilson?

The essence of complex life is cooperation. Genes link together to form chromosomes, cells clump together to form organisms, organisms group together to form societies. You and I are possible is because individual genes, chromosomes, and cells made a pact to work together instead of going it alone. We are also a social species. Our ancestors hung together in groups rather than pushing forth in competitive isolation.

Cooperative agreements among independent entities are so entwined with the nature of life that discovering the terms of such associations- from amoebae to ant colonies and beyond- is central to understanding how life exists in the first place. These are weighty issues, and I do not think it exaggeration to place the study of cooperation at the heart of any Grand Unifying Theory of biology.

I mention the importance of cooperation in biology because you might think that scientists who study cooperation ought show signs of being good at it themselves. But you’d be mistaken. The recent Nature paper by Nowak, Tarnita and Wilson is the latest salvo in a bitter and, in my opinion, largely pointless divide. (more…)

Monday Night Mystery: iStockphoto Mozzie Fails

What’s that annoying whine this evening? An insect in my ear?

Why, no! It’s iStockphoto, serving fake mosquitoes!

1.

2. 3.4.

So. None of these are mosquitoes. For two points each, tell me the correct family for each insect (8 pts total). No need to list identifying characters this time- just the name will do.

But wait- some of these misidentifications fail harder and more epically than others! Now that we know how to quantify the amount of Fail, I’ll give out two more points to the first person who can correctly rank-order the fails from least to most egregious.

As usual, the cumulative points winner for the month of September will win their choice of 1) any 8×10-sized print from my photo galleries, or 2) a guest post here at Myrmecos on a safe-for-work topic of their choosing.

An Odontomachus On Guard

Odontomachus latidens

How does one take a photograph like this?

Having a cooperative subject helps. I was able to borrow a few ants from a laboratory colony by gently dipping a piece of wood into the nest box, picking up a few guards, and placing the wood on a little pedestal. The pedestal was important, as I could approach from a low ants-eye perspective rather than shooting down at the subjects.

My actions were slow enough to avoid alarming the ants. They stayed calm, moving about slowly and deliberately, so that I could focus and compose equally deliberately.

The lighting was engineered by placing two white mylar diffusion sheets half an inch above the ant- just out of view- and firing two strobes through them, one farther away so that the light shone back through the translucent parts of the subject. That’s why the legs appear to glow a little.

The final element is patience. I took about 20 minute’s worth of photos to net a few usable ones.


photo details:
Canon EOS 7d camera
Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x macro lens
ISO 100 f/13 1/250 sec

Myrmoteras

Repeatedly over the course of ant evolution, when called for by particular predatory lifestyles, mouthparts have morphed into a sort of awful bear-trap mechanism. Mandibles are held open with tremendous pent-up energy and slam shut on hapless prey when triggered. This modification is called a trap-jaw, and slightly different versions of it are present in various groups of carnivorous ants.

The single trap-jaw to emerge in the ant subfamily Formicinae (the same group as the carpenter ants) belongs to Myrmoteras, a tropical Asian insect that hunts springtails in the leaf litter. Our lab hosts a few individuals of Myrmoteras iriodum, recently collected from Borneo, and I spent a few hours photographing one last week. You can see the best shots here.

Of all the ants I’ve photographed, Myrmoteras seems the least real. It appears to have sprung to life from the caricatured pages of a comic book.

More Myrmoteras photos here.

David Sloan Wilson on Nowak, Tarnita & Wilson

For those of you following the fireworks over this paper, David Sloan Wilson has a nuanced take on the inclusive fitness debate:

Few people who use inclusive fitness theory are aware of the long list of simplifying assumptions that result in Hamilton’s deceptively simple rule. Nowak et al. are performing a service to the evolutionary community by challenging the assumptions and forcing them to be openly discussed.

The Taxonomy Fail Index

It occurs to me that an objective measure of the amount of Fail in a given misidentification could be useful.

I propose the following:

A = the actual taxon of the pictured organism
B = the taxon as misidentified
T = the number of million years since A and B shared a common ancestor*
H = the number of million years since humans and our closest relatives,
the chimps, shared a common ancestor.

Taxonomy Fail Index (TFI) = T/H

In other words, the Taxonomy Fail Index scales the amount of error in absolute time against the error of misidentifying a human with a chimp.

If I were to run a story about Sarah Palin, but accidentally illustrate it with a photo of a bonobo, that would be a taxonomy fail of magnitude 1.

The classic Taxonomy Fail of possum/cat has a TFI of 24.6.

The yellow jacket/honey bee fail in the last post has a TFI of 25.2, or slightly stupider than mistaking an opossum for a cat.

Snope’s insistence that scale insects are “beetles” (via Bug Girl) is even stupider, TFI = 58. In fact, now that we can quantify the Fail, we see that Snopes fails more than twice as hard as the possum cat.

See? Science can be fun.


* A quick and easy way to get ancestry dates is the timetree of life