Ant Course

The first live photographs of Terataner?

Continuing our series of First-Ever-Photographs, after some research I suspect I have taken the first live images of the African tree-dwelling ant Terataner:

Terataner elegans (Kibale Forest, Uganda)

If you know of other photographs, speak up! I’ve been unable to find any online, nor in the scant technical literature on this genus.

The crew at Ant Course 2012 collected a twig nest of Terataner elegans along the roadside entrance to the Makerere University Field Station in Uganda, letting me borrow it for a few photographs before the ants were pickled for Cal Academy’s research collections. I had never seen live Terataner before. They reminded me a great deal of the related Australian genus Podomyrma, as both are muscular arboreal insects.

Terataner elegans (Kibale Forest, Uganda)

That images of these ants are exceedingly rare is not some boast of my photographic prowess; rather, it’s an observation on the paucity of African ant research relative to just about anywhere else in the world. Africa holds great promise for discovery.

Terataner elegans (Kibale Forest, Uganda)

Stay in Shape with Ant Science

California Academy of Sciences entomologist Brian Fisher digs deep into rainforest soil to look for rare ants. Kibale Forest, Uganda, during the August 2012 Ant Course.

Myrmecology is not all sedentary microscope work and beer-drinking. Sometimes field work can be strenuous. Here, ant guy Brian Fisher digs a trench to look for soil-dwelling ants. This particular excavation did not produce any surprises, but I did net a lovely Pristomyrmex.

Pristomyrmex africanus

photo details:
(top)Canon 17-40mm f4L wide-angle zoom lens on a Canon EOS 7D
ISO 1600, f/4.5, 1/60th sec
off-camera fill flash

(bottom)Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x macro lens on a Canon EOS 7D
ISO 200, f/13, 1/200th sec
diffuse twin flash

The Uganda Photographs

The dreaded Siafu: Dorylus sp. soldiers guard a foraging trail.

If you’ve been following Myrmecos, you might know I was lucky to instruct this summer’s Ant Course in Uganda. Unsurprisingly, it was epic. And I’ve got the photos to prove it:

Photographs from Ant Course/Uganda

During the 10-day course I took 5,280 exposures. After culling and processing, as of this afternoon I have uploaded 202 of the best. This is a 4% keep rate, very much in line with the 3% baseline from Australia and Brazil earlier this year. Some of these photos you may have seen in my various posts over the past couple months, but most are shiny, new, and unblogged. I hope you enjoy them.

The second-ever live photographs of “Disco Ants”: Discothyrea mixta & Discothyrea sp.

Myrmecologists, being only human (most of the time), have an irrational fondness for the proceratiine genus Discothyrea. Why? Have a look, and try not be overwhelmed by the cuteness of a pudgy muppet ant:

Discothyrea sp. (Kibale Forest, Uganda)

Discothyrea occurs in tropical climates around the globe, but as they are extremely small (1-2mm long), and as they live ensconced in soil and leaf litter, they are rarely seen. These little ants are never abundant, most likely because they are specialized predators on the eggs of another group of predators: spiders. Still, preserved “Discos” turn up in litter samples occasionally, and just about everyone who works on ants knows about them.

Discothyrea sp. (Kibale Forest, Uganda)
Discothyrea mixta, nest with prey eggs mixed in among their own brood. (Kibale forest, Uganda).

I had not seen Discothyrea alive until this summer. At Ant Course in Uganda we encountered at least two species; the first, pictured at the top on white, is typically reduced in features, showing few easy taxonomic characters. Given the group’s dire need of taxonomic revision I did not feel comfortable putting a name to it. The second, D. mixta, belongs to a distinct subgroup with larger eyes and a distinctly raised frontal lobe. Jack Longino found the nest pictured here and brought it to the lab for observation.

Discothyrea mixta transporting a prey egg with a first-instar ant larva (Kibale forest, Uganda).

On doing background research for my photographs I was surprised to discover only one additional image of living Discothyrea. Considering the relative fame of the adorable little Disco ants I had anticipated more. The plate is from a 1998 study by Dejean & Dejean documenting that queens of Discothyrea oculata– one of the large African species related to D. mixta– founds colonies by moving into spider egg sacs. Here’s Dejean’s photo, apparently the first live image of this genus:

Figure 1 from Dejean & Dejean 1998.

If you know of any others, give a shout out in the comments.

Further information on Discothyrea:


source: Dejean, A, Dejean, A, 1998. How a ponerine ant acquired the most evolved mode of colony foundation. Insectes Sociaux 45: 343-346. DOI: 10.1007/s000400050093

The first live photographs of Phrynoponera, an African hunting ant

Say hello to Phrynoponera gabonensis, a pudgy ponerine hunting ant (Kibale forest, Uganda).

I’m discovering that the fastest way to determine I’m not the first person to photograph something is to make an audacious claim about the supreme gloriousness of my first-ness in the shooting of exquisitely rare Ant X. The internet will sort me out, of course.

Thus, I suspect I may have taken the first ever images of a living, walking Phrynoponera hunting ant. I can’t find any live photographs of this thing in either the printed literature or online. If you know otherwise, please point me in the right direction!

Phrynoponera is a tropical African hunting ant recognizable for its compact form and distinctly spiny waist. We encountered P. gabonensis several times during this summer’s Ant Course in Uganda, usually as single foragers walking about at night on the forest floor. I found them to be timid, retiring ants more prone to hiding than biting. As is often the case with uncommon ants, almost nothing is known about their biology.

reference: Bolton, B, Fisher, B. L. 2008. The Afrotropical ponerine ant genus Phrynoponera Wheeler (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Zootaxa 1892: 35-52.

The first live photographs of Probolomyrmex (update: no, the second live photographs)

Continuing our series of “the first photographs of X”, below are what I suspect to be the first living photographs taken of the rare subterranean ant Probolomyrmex:

Ant Course in Uganda was phenomonal. There’s nothing like having 40 keen sets of eyeballs out searching for ants in an understudied tropical forest for 10 days. Under such intense effort, all sorts of rare material turns up, including species that are almost never seen alive, much less photographed.

This particular oddity I can actually claim to have found on my own, a tiny ant less than 3 millimeters long running around under a rotting log. I brought her back to the lab to photograph so I wouldn’t lose the specimen.

That's me in the makeshift lab studio at Ant Course 2012. You can see the secret to the white backdrop. (photo by Brian Fisher)

So little is known about this ant that no one even knows what it eats. Bob Taylor (1965) kept a colony once but the ants refused everything he tried to feed them. Yet, Probolomyrmex is widespread in the tropics and occurs in the undercollected deep soil habitat, so it may be one of those animals that ends up being more common once myrmecologists figure out how to look for it.

*update (9/27): Wait! Stop the Presses! Roberto Keller points us to this photograph from Donat Agosti’s 1995 revision of the South American species:

More resources:

The first live photographs of Aenictogiton

As far as I know, I’ve just uploaded the first living photographs ever taken of the rare African ant Aenictogiton. Go see.

Aenictogiton (Kibale Forest, Uganda)

Based on genetics and morphology, this creature is probably an army ant. Someone will have to spend time finding and watching the ever-elusive workers to confirm, though.

This individual was one of the treasures collected at Ant Course/Uganda in August.

Photos from Ant Course, Part 1 of Zillions

Ant scientists typically list a battery of technical reasons for why they chose to work on formicids- ecological dominance, social behavior, and so on- but ant science holds another advantage. Myrmecology is a lovely community of people, too. Here’s a shot from the Uganda Ant Course last month.

Myrmecologists Christian Peeters (France) and Corrie Moreau (USA) on the opening night of Ant Course 2012