Navel-Gazing

An Evolutionary Transition, In Vivo

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:

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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.

In Which I Cross All Limits To Acceptable Human Law

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Enforcing copyright is normally a great deal of unwanted drudgery and web forms, but now and again a feisty infringer breaks the tedium by responding to a standard notice with an enlightening salvo of insults. Meet Zornitza, who runs a website called Our Breathing Planet. I sent the above takedown notice to her host on discovering one of my field ant images, misidentified, in a blog post as an Argentine ant. It was the second time I’d found their organization using my work without permission or credit. Our correspondence is pasted below.

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Sorry Guys: No More Free Images for Scientific Papers

Dear scientists,

Owing to a series of recent incidents where my photographs have been used in technical papers without my consent, without credit, and released under Creative Commons licenses, I am sorry to announce I am ending my policy of free use of photographs for scientific papers.

Future use of my work will require a paid licensing agreement, the same as for most professional uses of copyrighted content. There are two exceptions. First, if I have photographed captive animals in your laboratory, those laboratories are allowed use of the associated images without additional permission, as long as those uses don’t involve releasing the images under a Creative Commons license. Second, use of the photographs as primary data should be considered fair use and is allowable.

Use of my images in presentations and classroom lectures is still allowable if credit is given, but please be aware that uploads of presentation slides to the internet requires a photo credit be given next to the image to prevent the appearance of being orphaned.

I regret having to tighten my policy, but my photo business has been my primary source of income for the past few years, and I cannot continue to afford producing and hosting natural history images for the myrmecological community to use if my guidelines are routinely sidestepped.

Thanks for understanding,

Alex

Photographs at Alexanderwild.com are now geotagged

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Want to know the precise coordinates of natural history photos at my gallery site? Thanks to recent improvements at my web host, Smugmug, if the photographs have geography metadata you may now click on a globe icon in the nav bar to view a zoomable map:

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Not all photographs are geotagged yet- bear with me as I work through them. This welcome improvement should add considerable information value to the site, though.