Breaking News: The Pheidologeny!


Out today is a preprint version (subscription only) of Corrie Moreau’s Pheidole phylogeny. At first glance this seems a nice piece of work: the evolutionary history of one of the world’s most diverse ant genera inferred from 140 species and 5 genes.

This is some extremely cool ant evolution research, and the first salvo from the nascent Pheidole working group. Once I get a chance to digest all 50+ pages I’ll post the highlights.

source: Moreau, C. S. 2008. Unraveling the Evolutionary History of the Hyperdiverse Ant Genus Pheidole (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, In Press, Accepted Manuscript.

New Species: Ectatomma parasiticum


Ectatomma parasiticum Feitosa & Fresneau 2008

In today’s Zootaxa, Feitosa et al describe a workerless social parasite in the ant genus Ectatomma. Like many discoveries, this one was fortuitous. The authors were collecting nests of the common Ectatomma tuberculatum when they noticed that some nests had a number of rather small queens in them. Genetic tests revealed them to be distinct.

Ectatomma parasiticum is a social parasite, using the labor of the host ants to raise more parasites. Although a similarly parasitic lifestyle is known to occur in other ant subfamilies, this is the first recorded case within Ectatommines.

What I’d like to know is if the evolution of E. parasiticum is a case of intra-specific parasitism that gave rise to speciation. The parasite and the host are similar enough to suggest it. Testing that hypothesis would be straightforward with a bit of genetic data collected across the range of both species. If true, E. parasiticum sequences should be nested within a larger group of E. tuberculatum sequences.

source: Feitosa et al. 2008. A new social parasite in the ant genus Ectatomma F. Smith (Hymenoptera, Formicidae, Ectatomminae). Zootaxa 1713: 47-52. launched

Donat Agosti’s group has launched Plazi, a set of tools that translates flat paper taxonomy into dynamic web content. This technology is significant: it means the content of old literature can be extracted automatically into databases. Taxonomic names are tracked and linked to external information, and collecting locations are linked to maps. This will be a valuable time-saver for taxonomic research.

As an example, my doctoral thesis was a fairly traditional piece of work: a book length taxonomic revision, all done in flat text on a word processor. Plazi has turned it into a hyper-linked bonanza of information. If you’re having difficulty appreciating the coolness here, scroll down to the “Material examined” section and click through the localities to view them on Google maps.

Incidentally, I never appreciated the leadership that myrmecology has shown in the emerging field of bioinformatics until I switched from ant research to beetles. I’d grown accustomed to having all our taxonomic literature online, a comprehensive catalogue of species, and a first-rate database of specimen images. Most groups of organisms have nothing of the sort. Many beetle taxonomists still have to sort through file cabinets looking for this paper or that paper, often without an organized catalogue of species to guide them. We’re really quite spoiled.

Here’s more:
Antbase’s Plazi Release statement.

Rod Page looks at the Encyclopedia of Life

For a devastatingly thorough critique, read Rod Page’s first impressions of EoL:

The first release was always going to be a disappointment, especially given the hype. What frustrates me, however, is just how far the first release is from what it could have been. The real question is how much the issues I’ve raised are things which are easy to fix given time, or whether they reflect underlying problems with the way the project is conceived.

The Encyclopedia of Life is Over-Hyped

The imminent release of an embryonic Encyclopedia of Life (EoL) has journalists buzzing about an exciting new online resource. I wish I could share their enthusiasm.

EoL has announced 1.7 million species pages within a decade, providing biological information for all of the world’s described species. That’s a lofty goal, but their plan for getting the content for those pages goes something like this:

Let’s build a snappy website, and then the site’s awesomeness will spontaneously cause all the biologists in the world to shower us freely with their knowledge.

And maybe they’ll buy us a pony, too.

My perspective might seem cynical, but it is grounded in the experience of scores of existing online efforts. These earlier projects, like the EoL, rely on voluntary contributions by the relevant taxonomic experts. Precious few reach a level of completion to be broadly useful. The best of the existing projects, in my admittedly biased opinion, is the University of Arizona’s Tree of Life. The Tree of Life has lots of great, voluntarily-contributed material, but they are islands in an empty sea. Squirrels are done in great detail, for instance, but you’ll not find anything on fireflies, crows, or fir trees. Most users looking for information on a particular group will not find it. The same will happen to EoL. It won’t matter that EoL has the snazziest fish pages in town when a user wants information on Zebras.

Consider that it took 250 years and tens of thousands of taxonomists to achieve the current 1.7 million described species. We’re not going to build the encyclopedia in a mere decade by hoping that the world’s remaining (and already underemployed) taxonomists volunteer their time. I fear that the EoL has gravely over-promised what it can deliver. Something like the current effort will eventually take flight, perhaps even stemming from this particular project. But to do it right will require properly supporting the people on whose expertise we all rest.

***UPDATE*** The EoL site was officially launched this morning, but only lasted a few minutes until the servers buckled. Seems they miscalculated.

Ant Course 2008: Venezuela


Ant Course 2008 is scheduled for Venezuela this August. The Ant Course, now in its 8th year, gives students an introduction to myrmecology with a decidedly taxonomic focus. More than just an academic exercise, the course serves as a meeting place where newcomers can mingle with an all-star cast of instructors, a superb social networking medium for aspiring ant scientists.

Admission to the Ant Course is competitive, with double the number of applicants than seats. I have been on the admissions committee in past years, and though I can’t speak for this year’s course I can share what the admissions folks looked for previously.

The ideal candidate is already pursuing an academic career. Most will be graduate students, post-docs, or assistant professors whose research requires taxonomic knowledge, especially in the region where the course will be taught. This year’s course is in South America and will favor students doing taxonomic revisions of Neotropical ant genera or biodiversity surveys of Neotropical habitats. As the course emphasizes taxonomic diversity, prospective students whose research covers a broad range of ants will be favored over those whose research focuses on a single model organism. Letters of recommendation from scientists known to the instructors will be helpful.

Prospective students who do not actively conduct research and are unaffiliated with a university, museum, or other research institution stand little chance of admission. Don’t despair, however. The text for the North American version of the course has just been published as a handly little guide, and students denied for admission one year are typically given priority the next.

More information here: Ant Course 2008.

New Species: Lordomyrma vanua

Lordomyrma vanua Lucky & Sarnat 2008
image by A. Lucky & E. Sarnat

Last week’s Zootaxa contained a excellent short paper by Andrea Lucky and Eli Sarnat describing a pair of new Lordomyrma species, including the beautiful L. vanua pictured above. As is true of most insects, Lordomyrma vanua remains a largely unknown quantity. It has been collected just twice, both times from the island of Vanua, in Fiji, for which it is named.

Source: Lucky, A. & E. M. Sarnat. 2008. New species of Lordomyrma (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) from Southeast Asia and Fiji. Zootaxa 1681: 37-46.

Public Service Announcement: Formica nitidiventris = F. pallidefulva

Formica incerta

In the comments, James Trager brings to our attention his recent synonymy of the venerable Formica nitidiventris with Formica pallidefulva. This is one of the most common ants, and in my opinion one of the prettiest, in eastern North America. Many of us from the east learned of this ubiquitous species incorrectly as F. nitidiventris, so the synonymy may take some getting used to. In any case, the name nitidiventris is sunk, so you’ll only make yourself look obsolete if you persist in using it.

The Trager et al (2007) revision of the Formica pallidefulva group is excellent, by the way. Thorough and well-illustrated. I had no troubles sorting out the ants in my collection, which turned out to contain all five of the group’s species.

source: Trager, J. C., J. A. MacGown and M. D. Trager. 2007. Revision of the Nearctic endemic Formica pallidefulva group, pp 610-636. In Snelling, R. R., B. L. Fisher, and P. S. Ward (eds) Advances in ant systematics (Hymenoptera: Formicidae): homage to E. O. Wilson – 50 years of contributions. Memoirs of the American Entomological Institute, 80.