Category Archives: Navel-Gazing

How Should Taxonomists Name Your Favorite Ants?

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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

Copyright Chronicles: A Viral Encounter With Landon Dowlatsingh

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It’s been a few months since I’ve posted a rollicking internet copyright yarn. Not that there haven’t been infringements. Those are constant. It’s just that most are overly pedestrian- a pest control coupon that’s removed on request, for example. Not worth blogging. This one, however, involves a barely literate YouTube host pretending to be a lawyer, and his messages are simply too bizarre to pass up sharing.

Infringement

A screen capture of Mr. Dowlatsingh presenting my photographs.

I won’t bore you with the details of the infringement beyond the basics: 6 photographs of driver ants, most with my name cropped out, uploaded twice to a popular YouTube tabloid without being credited or licensed. The infringer responded to my formal copyright notice by committing perjury, claiming to Youtube that he had rights to my work and that my notice was mistaken.

Thinking the rights grab a bold move, I emailed him. Our correspondence follows:

Continue reading →

Moving

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cephalotes3b

 

Myrmecos Industries global headquarters is moving across Austin this week to a more permanent location. It’s not a huge move, but if you email me I may be slower to respond than usual.

Anyway. Carry on.

Will The Insects Unlocked Project Damage The Commercial Insect Photo Market?

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Our plan to produce public domain images at the University of Texas has drawn the ire of professional photographers, several of whom have emailed me privately or commented publicly expressing concern for how the project will affect the insect photo market. For example:

I’m an insect photographer as well. The market for my photographs will decline with ideas like this. Can you explain how this is going to benefit the photography market by giving out free images? Too many photographers these days are doing work for free just to try and build clients and now you have this plan to give away free high quality insect images? Well, I see that as a huge negative blow to all other insect photographers out there…

I do love your work by the way…but I never saw this coming. Help me open my mind a little. What am I not seeing? How is this going to be a benefit and not negatively impact all other insect photographers?

I wish I had time to write a proper response to these queries. As it is, UT has me briskly busy during the day and mini-Myrmecos, at 18 months, keeps me plenty occupied during off hours. But, here is a short version on why I doubt Insects Unlocked will be a net negative for commercial insect photographers.

Obviously, a basic reading of supply and demand suggests that increasing supply by adding a couple thousand free photos to the market would depress prices. But buyers aren’t looking for generic insect photos. Or rather, the buyers that matter aren’t. Those looking for generics already use .30 cent microstock images. That market long ago collapsed to the point of irrelevance for pro shooters.

Buyers that matter, buyers with money, are looking for specialty images. They want photos of Apis florea in flight with a forested backdrop, a close-up of a cutworm eating lettuce, or a third instar triatomine assassin bug photographed in dorsal view. Insects Unlocked may intrude somewhat into this market, but let’s be realistic about how much it will intrude: not much. Our planned 1,000 to 2,000 image output in the pilot year is barely going to make a dent in the face of overwhelming insect diversity. Even working our hardest, we’ll be lucky to image 0.01% of the world’s 10 million species. Hell, we’ll be lucky to manage .1% of the insect fauna of just Texas.

Buyers that matter are looking for rarity, too. I know this from interactions I’ve had over the years. Buyers commonly ask if I have unpublished photos, or photos that aren’t licensed very often. New, unseen images have special value. Public domain images do not. Nothing says “I’m nearly bankrupt” like a company splaying public domain images across their products. Even if the Insects Unlocked output is visually spectacular, most high-value buyers will still buy from copyrighted stock, as copyright ensures the coveted rarity.

Buyers in the print market- the ones with money- are similarly not looking for generic insect photographs. They’re looking for a Piotr Naskrecki or a Darlyne Murawski. Insects Unlocked does not plan on producing any of those.

This, particularly, is what frustrates me most about the notion that Insects Unlocked will weaken the market. The despair would make sense in a bland, uncreative world where the works of all insect photographers were interchangeable. But they are not. Each photographer has a unique style. I can pick, for example, a Laurie Knight photo from 100 meters out. We are not Laurie Knight, alas. We’re Insects Unlocked. The buyers who matter are discerning enough to tell us apart. If you think Insects Unlocked will weaken your market, what does that say about your photography?

Likewise, the professional photographer most likely to take a financial hit from Insects Unlocked is me. In spite of my new university position, I still earn a substantial proportion of my income from licensing images from my copyright-protected libraries, and from print sales. If buyers have a choice between a $250 copyrighted Alex Wild print from my galleries, or a public domain Alex Wild printed for $5 from Walmart, will they choose rarity over cost? If I am short-changing anyone with Insects Unlocked, it isn’t other photographers.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we rise and fall not as much on how we compete with each other, but on how our subject matter competes with other cultural concerns. If the general public’s entomological interests declines, we’re all screwed, public domain or no. If public interest doubles, we all do well. Rising tide, ships, you know the metaphor. To the extent that a small public domain image campaign buoys the public perception of insects, we all benefit.

And now, because I am exhausted and behind schedule on other projects, I am publishing this post without proofreading. Fair warning.

Here’s Looking At You, Ant

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eye

The compound eye of many ants, including a Camponotus I imaged this morning on the new focus-stacking rig, has two colors of ommatidia. Most are black, but the peripheral facets are lighter. I’ve seen this for years but had no idea why this might be the case.

A quick search on Google scholar suggests an orientation function related to light polarization:

abstract

Can anyone who knows more about insect vision than me weigh in? I’m genuinely curious.

 

Camponotus sayi

Camponotus sayi, worker from Austin, Texas.

 

Update: Micheal Bok has the answer!

A Blank Slate

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photo

Empty specimen storage drawers at the University of Texas Insect Collection.

After some unpacking of boxes, assembling of microscopes, signing of paperworks, and drinking of coffees, I am now at the helm of Texas’s second largest insect collection. The University of Texas Insect Collection coalesced over the past decade or so largely through the efforts of my friend and photography co-conspirator John Abbott, and I feel I am borrowing the collection more than running it.

I suppose that’s always the case with biological collections, though. We hold in trust things those in the past deemed useful for their counterparts in the future.

Alex Wild Photography In Diapause

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texana12
 
As you may have heard, Myrmecos Industries is moving its global headquarters from Illinois to the University of Texas/Austin. Starting in January, Mrs. Myrmecos will be a postdoctoral researcher on bee microbiomes, I will be UT’s new curator of entomology, and mini-Myrmecos will be dictating our domestic affairs and arranging the cats. We are all very excited!

With the move comes tough decisions. I have spent the past months pondering the fate of my photo business, as starting this month I will no longer be able to devote more than a few hours a week to it. By “business”, I mean the commercial side of the operation. I’m not putting down my camera, of course. That would kill me.

I have, for the present, settled on the following strategy. Effective immediately, here is what to expect in the transition.

Things that remain the same:

1. The Alex Wild Photography site will continue to receive updates and new images, as well as offering the usual prints, periodic print sales, and image licenses.
2. The BugShot workshops. Why mess with a good thing?

Things that change:

1. Private photo lessons and commissioned projects are discontinued. I may still consider the occasional request, but the timing and price will work around my new schedule.
2. My images will no longer be available via a 3rd party stock agency (Visuals Unlimited/Corbis.) Abandoning a workload-handling agency may appear counter-intuitive, but the stock industry is experiencing such turmoil that I no longer feel comfortable abrogating licensing rights when I won’t have time to monitor them as the ship sinks. Correspondingly:
3. The sole source of image licenses and permissions will be via the automated shopping cart on my website. I cannot guarantee I will have time to answer other licensing requests promptly.
4. Requests for free images may not be answered. If your intended unpaid use is explicitly covered by my image use policy, then you may proceed without prior permission. Otherwise, permission may be obtained via paid licensing on my website.

Once I am up and running in the UT collections I will reassess the state of things and adjust accordingly.

 

An Evolutionary Transition, In Vivo

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Among the most dazzling products of insect evolution are leafcutter ants, which cultivate an edible fungus on a compost of fresh vegetation. The ants’ digestive chemistry is so simplified that they can only eat the fungus that grows in the underground gardens.

The leafcutter/fungus system is complex enough to seem highly improbable, and indeed, it appears to have evolved only once in the 130 million year history of ants. How could such a complex system appear?

The system did not spring forth fully-formed, of course. I was reminded of the gradual evolutionary transition on our recent BugShot course in Belize, when I happened across Trachymyrmex intermedius.

Trachymyrmex intermedius

 

Contrary to appearances, T. intermedius is not a leafcutter ant.

At least, not technically. True leafcutters belong only to the genera Atta and AcromyrmexTrachymyrmex is instead the sprawling, paraphyletic genus from which the leafcutters arose. These ants also farm fungus, but they typically use dead vegetation, caterpillar frass, and other bits of detritus. Like so:

argentina1

Green vegetation is not the usual fare for Trachymyrmex, but T. intermedius and several others do take it on occasion. Seeing a few of these small ants trundling off with a harvest more fit for their larger cousins was just a reminder that animal behavior is naturally variable, and that variation is what allows the evolutionary process to explore new paths.

Little ant, big thoughts.