All the better to see you with…

Harpegnathos venator

A perk of being at a major university is photographic access to the wild and wonderful diversity of insect research subjects studied by various biologists in the department. This week Andy Suarez returned from Ant Course/Borneo bearing live ant colonies. They were exported under research permits for studies of genome size and for the biomechanics of ant mandibles.

But the ants were also available for a leisurely photo shoot before being shipped down the science pipeline, so I spent Tuesday afternoon with my camera gear up in the lab pretending like I was exploring the jungles of southeast Asia. I even stole tropical leaves from the plant biology greenhouse to serve as rainforest backdrops. It was a reasonable facsimile, except for the air conditioning, internet access, and coffee shop up the road, of course. Sometimes I prefer my jungles to be civilized.

Anyway. The next few days I’ll be posting shots from the session. Borneo has some freaky amazing ants. Like this big-eyed hunting ant Harpegnathos venator.

Harpegnathos venator

Some day I’ll get to Borneo myself. My interest is certainly piqued now.

-more Harpegnathos photos here

*updateok, maybe not venator. Anybody need a taxonomic research project?

The fight over Nowak, Tarnita and Wilson’s paper heats up

An artist's depiction of E. O. Wilson, at center, surrounded by the adherents of Hamilton's inclusive fitness shortly after last week's Nature paper.

You’ve been pestering me about my take on Nowak et al’s claimed destruction of inclusive fitness as an explanation for eusociality. To be honest this sort of thing makes my brain hurt, and I haven’t finished processing the models in the supplemental information that are central to the paper’s arguments. So you’ll have to wait until I find the time to address it properly.

In the meantime, you can entertain yourself with these counterpoints:

Answer to the Monday Night Mystery

As many of you picked, Monday’s mystery weevil was Haplorhynchites aeneus – the sunflower decapitating weevil (or something like that).

Points are awarded as follows:

7 points to Chris Grinter for being the first to pick the species.
3 points to Serena for being the first to pick the genus.
1 point to James Trager for some extra and much-appreciated natural history nerdery.

Right. So this brings us to the end of August (*sigh*). The monthly winner, with 12 points, is FormicidaeFantasy, who edges out second-place Jason C by two.

Congratulations, FF, please contact me at your convenience to claim your loot.

Monday Night Mystery

This insect was photographed on the stem of a yellow composite in an Illinois priarie.

The nose knows, and this little insect appears to have quite a long one. But do you know?

Ten Myrmecos Points (TM) for the first correct guess to genus and species of our mystery insect. Supporting information about identifying characters must be provided to claim points.

As usual, the cumulative points winner for the month of August 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.

The Importance of Sunsets

If you’ve spent time looking at my photo galleries, you’ll know most of my macro images are lit with an off-camera flash. While I’d like to claim that flash is my personal style, the reality is that flash is more convenient. Flash provides the control to take a consistently well-exposed photo in any place at any time of day. Images look exactly like I want them to, whether shot in the harsh glare of midday or the black of midnight.

Sunlight by itself, though, does marvelous things twice a day. At sunset and sunrise light goes sideways, leaving long gentle shadows. The quality of natural light at these times is superb for flash-free photography, and yesterday evening I went to Meadowbrook park with my 100mm f2.8 macro lens to capture the prairie as the sun went down.


A Voracious Aphid Lion

A hungry aphid lion plucks a milkweed aphid from the herd

A few weeks ago the first Aphis nerii of the season showed up in our little prairie garden. These little orange globes multiplied to plague proportions within days. The butterfly weed was hit hard, dropping its plumes of orange flowers and withering.

The bounty of aphids didn’t go unnoticed for long. Lots of insects eat aphids, and before long the rows of aphids had succumbed to the developing larvae of aphid wasps, turning to hardened brown mummies. Armies of furry aphid lions appeared- larvae of the common green lacewings that frequent porch lights*- to pick among the survivors.

Aphid lions are particularly effective predators, perhaps more so than the ladybirds and preying mantids more commonly marketed as garden beneficials. Their mouthparts are elongated into sharp hollow needles that quickly pierce their prey and drain them dry within minutes.

The long jaws of aphid lions are hollow, allowing them to suck up the juices of their hapless prey

*Lacewings also visit bug zappers, unfortunately. Do you know what doesn’t visit bug zappers? Mosquitoes. You’re an idiot if you use those things, as bug zappers have a high kill rate against friendly insects while doing nothing against the most common biting insects.

More Support for the Superorganism Concept

a Pogonomyrmex worker contemplates the superorganism

Ecologists have long known that an animal’s metabolism is related to its size in a rather predictable way. Large animals process more energy than small animals, but they do so with an efficiency such that, pound for pound, they use less. A cow may weigh as much as 15,000 mice, but an ounce of cow muscle has a lower metabolism than an ounce of mouse muscle. Kleiber’s Law describes the relationship: metabolism normally scales at 3/4 the rate of body mass.

One way to evaluate the controversial superorganism concept– the notion that an insect colony is more like an organism itself than just a sum of many individuals- is to ask whether colonies follow Kleiber’s law. That is, as ant colonies get bigger does the relationship of metabolism to mass scale at the slower 3/4 (like an organism), or at an isometric 1:1 (like an aggregate of individuals)?

This week, a team of myrmecologists at Arizona State University led by James Waters published a clever test in the journal American Naturalist.


Ant genome update: should genome data be made available on publication?

It looks from here and here as though there are plans to make the new ant genomes available.

Here is Science Magazine’s data policy:

Data and materials availability. All data necessary to understand, assess, and extend the conclusions of the manuscript must be available to any reader of Science. After publication, all reasonable requests for materials must be fulfilled. Any restrictions on the availability of data or materials, including fees and original data obtained from other sources (Materials Transfer Agreements), must be disclosed to the editors upon submission. Fossils or other rare specimens must be deposited in a public museum or repository and available for research.

It sounds to me like the data should have been available- if not publically then somewhere behind Science’s subscription barrier- now that the paper is out. Am I being too stringent in my interpretation of “data?” Is Science not following its stated policy? Or am I missing something?

*update: what I’m missing is that NCBI timed the release of the data to coincide with the print version of the article, not the online version. The genomes are now released and available here:

Harpegnathos saltator:
Camponotus floridanus: