Why I support the 99% movement

Paraguay is the second poorest country in South America. You’d never know it from visiting some neighborhoods in the capital city of Asunción, though. Shiny new SUVs cruise the streets between the golf course and the yacht club. Boutique malls sell the latest in European fashion. Not a bad country for enjoying the good life.

I lived in Paraguay for a time in the late 1990s, but not anywhere near the country club. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in a dusty frontier community 100 miles off the paved road. With a government salary of $220/month I was the wealthiest person on my street.  My neighbors, for comparison, had 11 children and somehow made do on about $400/year they made selling tobacco to a local distributor and onions in the nearby village. Many small farmers subsisted in the short term on bank credit, a sort of debt servitude that, carried out over years, funneled resources out of the community and upward to the elite. In the long term, some eventually lost their land and migrated to the city where I lost track of them. The slums were always growing around Asunción’s outskirts.

Most of the land was owned by only 350 people, according to a newspaper article in 1998. This statistic startled me, and explained a great deal of Paraguay’s dysfunction. 350 was half the size of my high school graduating class! The country was being run by an exclusive club of millionaires that all knew each other and, for the most part, didn’t pay much attention to the poor folks.

Paraguay was ostensibly a democracy, a 1989 coup having deposed a long-standing dictator. But the elections remained theater. A few rival millionaires would emerge from their mansions long enough to film TV spots featuring them bravely clearing brush at the ranch riding about on horseback looking folksy. To remove any remaining doubt about their populist roots, they would then toss a few bribes to the voters the week of the election. My community at the forest’s edge got free chainsaws. Thanks, General Oviedo!

In spite of the country’s political corruption, I am fond of Paraguay. The people are friendly, the natural history is rich, and the climate warm and forgiving. After my tour was up, I considered starting up a beekeeping operation and staying in country. After all, I calculated that I only needed about 30 hives to sustain a basic campo lifestyle.

In the end, though, I decided against it. The crime rate was phenomenally high, the ambient poverty depressing, and as an outsider the pervasive corruption certainly didn’t work in my favor. The society simply did not function well, and although it contained great charm it was too often punctuated by avoidable tragedy.

Mostly, I never had the security I felt in the middle class in the United States. In fact, Paraguay didn’t have much of a middle class. The wealthy were wealthy, the poor were poor, and any social mobility tended to be downwards.

Paraguay has natural resources: fertile soil, navigable rivers, and a pair of world-class hydroelectric projects. But the wealth never spreads beyond the aristocracy. The powerful have little incentive to run the country to benefit anyone but themselves. Income inequality was not just a problem, it was the single biggest obstacle to any sort of improvement to the lives of the populace.

It didn’t matter if you wanted to implement a liberal program, or a conservative program, or to regulate, or to deregulate. Ideology didn’t even really matter. If the aristocrats could make money, it would happen. If it would cost them money, it wouldn’t. Unless their family was involved. They’d fire competent staff to replace them with a nephew. If you knew the right people you wouldn’t have to work hard; if you didn’t you were basically stuck. If the powers that be didn’t like a new law, it’d never be enforced. If, heaven forbid, a rivalry among the aristocrats escalated, someone got killed. Paraguayan government was corruption in near-textbook purity, and the scam was all possible because the immense resource gap between the rich and the masses meant no one from within the system could challenge it.

Now, back to the United States.

I am not enjoying watching my own country develop the same internal dynamic that corroded the heart of Paraguayan society. As power and wealth concentrate upwards, the ability of a democracy to function in the interests of its people falters. Forget free markets, or single-payer health care, or whatever your hobby horse happens to be. None of it- left, right, or center- will happen once corruption becomes endemic. And corruption is a major product of wealth disparity.

This is why I support the 99% & Occupy movements. At long last they’ve gotten Americans talking about our nascent Aristocracy. I love Paraguay, but if I wanted to live in that sort of system I’d rather move back there than grow a banana republic at home.

The Bloodsucking Conenose

Triatoma sanguisuga, the eastern bloodsucking conenose

In Paraguay, where I lived for a time in the 1990s, one insect is feared more than any other: the Vinchuca, or bloodsucking conenose.

The bug itself isn’t the problem. It’s the pathogen it transmits while feeding. Trypanosoma cruzi is a horrific slow-acting protozoan that chews at the muscle fibers of your internal organs. It takes its time, though. 15 years later, your heart up and stops. Or more gruesome your bowels dialate, loosing their ability to move business along. Fecal matter piles up unvoided in the intestines and you perish bloated, painfully, with blood poisoning. This awful disease is called Chagas. It affects millions of people in rural Latin America.

I would frequently search for Triatoma in the cracks of the walls of my little Paraguayan campo house in the hopes of keeping my risk at a minimum. I never found any, thankfully, though I did see them in my area. This memory has burned itself deeply enough in my consciousness that I still respond viscerally to Triatoma, even a different species on a different continent.

The individual photographed above came to a blacklight at BugShot a couple weeks ago. Triatoma sanguisuga, the eastern bloodsucking conenose, is a strikingly colored bug. I jumped a little when seeing it.

Our native bugs have a key difference preventing Chagas outbreaks on our continent: they don’t defecate in the bite wound while feeding, which is how the trypanosome gets from the insect to the mammalian host. We’re safe because our bugs crap discretely. I guess that’s good. For us. Though I can’t help but feel our South American friends got a raw deal just because their local bugs have runny bowels.

Oxyepoecus in Paraguay – new Open Access paper

Oxyepoecus bidentatus Delsinne and Mackay 2011

I have not done much ant research this year. The ever-expanding photography business, the beekeeping course, and the braconid project have occupied most of my time. But I’ve been able to participate in smaller myrmecological projects, one of which was published online this week. It is a small taxonomic paper co-authored with Thibaut Delsinne and others summarizing what is known about the enigmatic myrmicine ant genus Oxyepoecus in Paraguay, with descriptions of two new species:

Abstract: We discuss the diversity and distribution of the ant genus Oxyepoecus in Paraguay. Oxyepoecus inquilinus is recorded for the first time, and new distribution data are given for O. rastratus and O. vezenyii. Published data for O. bruchiO. rastratusO. reticulatus, and O. vezenyii are summarized. Two new species are described (O. bidentatus n. sp. and O. striatus n. sp.), and a key to the workers of the seven Paraguayan Oxyepoecus species is provided. At Teniente Enciso National Park, four species cooccur. This locality appears as a promising site for studies documenting the biology of this poorly known ant genus, and because of the IUCN “vulnerable“ Red List classification of O. inquilinus, the importance of the Teniente Enciso National Park for biological conservation is clearly established.

Incidentally- because I know I have trouble with this- the genus name is commonly pronounced “OX-eee-PEE-cus”.

source: T. Delsinne, W. Mackay, A. Wild, Y. Roisin, and M. Leponce, “Distribution and Diversity of the Cryptic Ant Genus Oxyepoecus (Hymenoptera: Formicidae: Myrmicinae) in Paraguay with Descriptions of Two New Species,” Psyche, vol. 2012, Article ID 594302, 8 pages, 2012. doi:10.1155/2012/594302

I love the internet

Feeling nostalgic this afternoon for my Peace Corps days, I did a Google Earth fly-by of my adoptive community, Colónia Once de Setiembre. Not only does Google show the site in high-resolution, the images are clear enough to see a patch of trees I planted with my neighbor in 1997. Judging from the shadows, our token attempt at reforestation must be at least 10 meters tall now.

The miracle of the internet also allows me to confirm that the economy of Once de Setiembre hasn’t changed much since I left.

The Ants of Paraguay now up at Antweb

Platythyrea pilosula - Image by April Nobile/Antweb

Yesterday, the above photograph was uploaded to Antweb’s databases.   Platythyrea pilosula is the final species to be imaged for the Ants of Paraguay project, marking the end of a sporadic and meandering study that I started in 1995 as a hobby during my stint in the Peace Corps.  After combining several years’ worth of my field collections with the holdings at 19 entomological museums, I tallied 541 species for the country.  This turns out to be too many species to keep track of in my head (I max out at about 300 or so), so I’ve found Antweb’s ready access to Paraguayan ant images very helpful.

An unexpected result of the survey was an unusual imbalance between the number of non-native ants present in Paraguay with the number of native species that are trampy or invasive elsewhere in the world:

This is precisely the opposite pattern than that shown by most regions.  Consider California.  With a land area equivalent to Paraguay, the state hosts 25 non-native species and perhaps only one or two natives that have established elsewhere.

Here’s something for the invasion biologists to chew on: Paraguay may be the only place in the world that is a net exporter of invasive ant species.  I’m not volunteering to figure out why this is, but I do hope that having the regional ant fauna catalogued and imaged will make the job easier for those who do tackle it.

source: Wild, A. L. 2007. A Catalogue of the Ants of Paraguay (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Zootaxa 1622: 1–55.

Dinoponera grooming

Back in 2002 when I used the Nikon Coolpix 995 for everything, I would occasionally play around with the camera’s very basic video mode. The 995 made small, grainy movies without sound, and most of the videos I took are, well, pretty bad. But the camera had impressive macro abilities, which meant it could shoot ants close-in. Here’s a movie of a Dinoponera from the Mbaracayú Forest Reserve in Paraguay:

Here’s a new excuse…

My lovely wife Jo-anne has been in South America the last couple weeks doing field research on Argentine ants while I tend the home fires here in Tucson. I hope she finds it in her to forgive me for the post I am about to write.

Earlier today I got an email explaining why I’m not getting my much-awaited phone call:

I’d call but there aren’t any phones at this locutorio and we’re on our way out to look for social spiders.”

Excuse me? Social spiders? More important than me, your needy hubby?

Ok, I grant that social spiders are pretty cool, if a bit creepy. I remember those things from when I lived in South America. They spun massive webs that spanned tree-tops, anchored to the ground with tow lines as strong as steel cables. I nearly died from shock the first time I saw them. I had accidently walked under their tree, a large Enterolobium, and looked up to find the sky speckled with thousands of grape-sized spiders, all sharing a web tens of meters across. It still gives me the willies to think about.

A few years later I had a camera handy when a Paraguayan friend and I drove past what looked like a small body caught up in Shelob’s web. We stopped.


Turned out not to be a single body, but hundreds of little hairy bodies that had fastened several branches into a little cradle. Social spiders!


From close in:


Social spiders are something of a mystery. They don’t share all the traits that have tipped the more famously social ants, bees, wasps, and termites into cooperative living. Yet it appears that nearly a dozen independent lineages of spiders have converged on a cooperative lifestyle. There must be something advantageous in it for the spiders, and that question continues to attract inquisitive scientists like Jo-anne.

Still, which do you think is better? Me? Or that twitching arachnoid mass of legs? And anyway, wouldn’t calling me be *safer* than going out looking for those things?

Ants from a Kilometer Up

So you like insects, but can’t be bothered to get up from your computer to go look for some? Google earth to the rescue!

South of Tucson, Arizona (31°38.097’N 111°03.797’W) I found this lovely aerial image. Visualized from an elevation of about a kilometer and a half, it shows a hill just west of I-19 covered in freshly-sprouted grass. Except, there’s this strange pattern of evenly-spaced polka-dots:


What could account for the speckles? Alien crop-circles? Bizarre gardening accidents?

Why no, those are the nest discs of one of our most conspicuous insects in the Sonoran desert, the red harvester ant Pogonomyrmex barbatus. Down on the ground it is harder to get a sense of the even spacing of the nests, but the discs are plenty obvious. The ants keep the large area around their nest entrance free of vegetation and other unwanted debris. Below is a photo I took south of the Huachuca mountains, not far from the google earth image above:


Even closer-up, here are the engineers:


North American Pogonomyrmex aren’t the only ants whose engineering prowess is visible from low-earth orbit. Some of the more spectacular leafcutter ants in South America make even larger mounds. The image below the fold is also from Google Earth, 1 km over the Paraguayan Chaco (24°06.914’S 57°22.240’W).


The Ants of Paraguay

Camponotus personatus

Paraguay may be the world’s most important country. Never mind that it is economically isolated and geopolitically forgettable. Rather, I measure importance by less trivial metrics, and by that of course I mean ants.

Paraguayan ants have changed the world. Many of the world’s worst pest species evolved on the broad plains of the Paraná river before hitchhiking with human commerce to points abroad. The infamous fire ants in the southern U.S. originated on the Paraná, as did the Argentine Ants that plague California and Europe, along with a rogue’s gallery of other trampy and invasive species. These invasives transform ecosystems and drive native species to extinction. Not to mention that some of them are champion stingers and are very good at getting into houses, greenhouses, and wherever else they can stir up trouble.

We do not know why ants from this region are so potent, but perhaps something about the Paraná acts as a cradle for pestilence. Sadly, we’re a pretty long way from finding out, as the ant fauna in that part of the world has been among the most poorly-documented anywhere. We know a fair bit about what happens to these ants after they arrive in Europe, Hawaii, Florida, and other places frequented by scientists, but what goes on in the native range is largely a black box. I’ve been slowly been chipping away at the problem by cataloging the ant species that live in Paraguay. You can check out the progress- accompanied by April Nobile’s amazing ant images- here:

The Ants of Paraguay



For more details, the full catalog is here (full text is subscription only, sorry):

Wild, A. L. 2007. A Catalogue of the Ants of Paraguay (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Zootaxa 1622: 1-55.