An image search for one of my favorite ants, the Atta leafcutters, returns a jarring juxtaposition of terrorists and ants:
Leafcutter ants are the most conspicuous insects in Central and South America. Every photographer who happens across their bustling trails seems to take pictures of them. The world really does not need any more photos of leafcutter ants, but I can’t help myself. They’re pretty. My latest attine indulgences can be viewed here:
Warning: long ranty post to follow.
Taxonomy is an unusual discipline in the balance it strikes between legal and scientific concepts. There’s the obvious biology bit about discovering and defining taxa, but unlike any other science there’s a backbone of legalistic code that regulates the dynamics of names. If you’re the sort who really digs dry legal documents, you can read the zoological code here and the botanical code here. The codes are largely concerned with nomenclature, dealing with issues such as the proper hierarchy of ranks, and resolving conflict among competing names. For instance, the code decides what happens when two people independently describe the same biological species with different names. The short of it is that taxonomists, like courts, must deal with precedent. They are bound by the code to consider all relevant previous publications.
Because of the importance of precedent, taxonomy is uniquely vulnerable to crackpots. When such a person surfaces, the schlop he produces cannot just be dismissed as the rantings of some hare-brained loner. (more…)
In an earlier post about flash diffusion, I wrote about camera flash being a necessity of the trade-off between depth of field and shutter speed. Most insect photographers- myself included- work hard to improve the depth of field in our photographs, trying to bring as much of our diminutive subjects into focus as possible. This means we use a lot of flash.
However, that’s not the only way to take insect photos. If one is happy to throw depth of field to the wind, one can dispense with the need for flash and produce photos from the ambient light. The effect is dramatic. One doesn’t get crisp field-guide type pictures but smooth, watery, impressionistic images. Some fine examples of taking insect photography in that direction can be found at the site Bug Dreams. In particular, check out Rick’s lovely shots of ants.
Technomyrmex fisheri Bolton 2007
Madagascar, line drawing by Barry Bolton
Last month, British myrmecologist Barry Bolton published the first ever global synthesis of the ant genus Technomyrmex. The tome describes 37 new species, including Technomyrmex fisheri from Madagascar, named after Brian Fisher of Antweb. I’m always keen to try out new taxonomic keys, so I tested Bolton’s out on several unidentified African and Australian species in my collection. As is nearly always the case with Bolton’s meticulous work, the key worked flawlessly. I only wish I had more Technomyrmex to key.
Perhaps the most notable finding of the study, aside from the plethora of new species, is one that might upset the Pest Control folks. Bolton has discovered that the infamous White-Footed Ant, previously thought to be the single species T. albipes, is a complex of similar species, only one of which is T. albipes. In the long run, the knowledge that there are multiple pesty species in the group will better help us determine where they came from and how to control them, but of course in the short term these are the sorts of discoveries that make people hate taxonomists. Changing names makes literature retrieval more difficult, and it’s always tricky to have to remember a new name.
The Technomyrmex causing problems in Florida can no longer be referred to as Technomyrmex albipes. It is now Technomyrmex difficilis. Perhaps appropriately, we can now call this pest the “The Difficult Ant”. In any case, it looks like this in the field.
Source: Taxonomy of the dolichoderine ant genus Technomyrmex Mayr (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) based on the worker cast. Barry Bolton. 2007. 150 pp. Contributions of the American Entomological Institute Volume 35, No. 1.
Zut alors! This blog seems to have developed a following of Frenchmen. The shame of it is, I studied French for 5 years in High School and don’t remember a word of it.
The French ant-enthusiast forum Acideformik looks like a fine place to hang out on the intra-webs. Most online myrmecology forums are populated by 12 year-olds relating their experiences fighting red and black ants, or trying to trade in their allowance to import a colony of exotic bulldog ants (to kick the butts of both red and black ants, I gather). However, the French are over there having book discussions and contemplating the finer points of petiolar morphology. I’m jealous.
Discoveries of new species on our little-known planet continue apace. The two known specimens of the impressively toothy Mystrium maren were collected in 2001 in Indonesia, and Jochen Bihn and Manfred Verhaagh just published a paper in Zootaxa describing this ant and another new species, M.leonie.
Source: J. H. Bihn & M. Verhaagh, 2007. A review of the genus Mystrium (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) in the Indo-Australian region. Zootaxa 1642: 1-12.
*update* Lead author Jochen Bihn writes about the paper on Trophallaxis Blog.
If I had to pick a favorite myrmicine ant, I’d go with the heavily armored Neotropical genus Cephalotes. These arboreal ants are typically thought of as rainforest canopy dwellers, but we have a desert species here in Arizona, Cephalotes rohweri, that is the northernmost species in an otherwise tropical genus. They nest in abandoned beetle burrows in the dead wood of living Palo Verde trees.
Earlier this month, myrmecologist Scott Powell was in town to scope out a potential research project on our local populations. Scott has been studying how the nesting ecology of these ants drives the evolution of the highly-specialized soldier caste, focusing on populations in Brazil, but is looking to expand his project to include other species. By the looks of it, C. rohweri will make a fine experimental system. Scott was kind enough to let me photograph a few of the colonies he brought into the lab for some preliminary studies, and this morning I uploaded a few of them to the galleries at myrmecos.net:
Incidentally, it turns out that the best way to bait Cephalotes is to urinate on a tree. I’m not making this up. There’s something about urine that attracts the workers.