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One of these things is not like the others

Cephalotes pusillus is ever-present in cerrado. In fact, I have never encountered another ant that is so abundant in a natural system, tropical or temperate. They are generalist nesters and can be found in almost every piece of standing dead-wood and many live trees. The workers are particularly robust, even for Cephalotes, and will often bulldoze their way to foods already overwhelmed by other ants.

C. pusillus worker

But even for these tank-like ants, trouble lurks in a surprisingly familiar form. The aphantochilid spider Aphanlochilus rogersi is a very striking mimic of C. pusillus, but not for the purposes of protection. It is an infiltration tactic. A spider will sit on the edge of a foraging trail of its model, seemingly undetected by the ants. When one worker strays too far off the beaten track, the spider strikes and runs with its prey before the large and dangerous foraging force has time to react. These spiders are remarkably abundant…but very fast. It took me a good year to get this shot of one of these hunting mimics with its prey and model.

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The ant-mimicking Aphanlochilus rogersi with a paralyzed worker of its model, Cephalotes pusillus. This shot is on the underside of a branch. The foraging column from which the C. pusillus worker was plucked was on the upper surface.

For those wanting to read more, there is a nice older paper on this interaction (Oliveira, P.S. & Sazima, I. 1984. The adaptive bases of ant-mimicry in a neotropical aphantochilid spider (Araneae: Aphantochilidae). Biol. J. Linnean Soc. 22: 145-155.)

Anting the Solomons, Part II

…By the time we reached the the top of the mountain, Wasmannia had disappeared from the old growth forest and the native fauna appeared to us as it must have appeared to W. M. Mann the century before. Yet what the forest gave to us in specimen rewards, it took from us in bodily harm. The second day forced us across the river six times before we could begin our ascent up the mountain. Even if we hadn’t crossed so many times, the constant deluge would have left us just as soaked. Rain coated the steep mud trail with a frictionless layer of slip, causing Evan, Jon and I to perform a fine stooge routine as we fell one after the other in complex patterns of synchronicity. We are ants climbing a fluon-rimmed tub I meditated, searching for in vain for clean spot of pant leg upon which to rub muddy hands.
A small highland village between Hauta and Marone
A small highland village between Hauta and Marone
The local fellows did the entire hike with hands holding our bags and 20 kilo bags of rice — their feet bare of shoes —  just as we might stroll down a neighborhood street. What for us was a will-bending, bottom-bruising, eight hour struggle was literally the two hour walk home from school for the village children. All the houses built atop the mountain were constructed from forest materials or hiked up 800 meters on the backs of men and women.
A typical wooden house in Marone village. All building suplies must be brought in by hand over a treacherous 800 meter ascent.
A typical wooden house in Marone village. All building suplies must be brought in by hand over a treacherous 800 meter ascent.
The mud, humiliation and bruises were well worth the fine hauls of ants our party was bringing in. Although I kept one eye out for small dark myrmicines that smelled like Lordomyrma, the bread and butter of this expedition was  Malaise trapping and Winkler sifting. Malaise trapping involves pitching tent of insect fabric specially designed to funnel intercepted insects into a collecting bottle at the apex of the roof, and then down into a puddle of 95% liquid doom. Malaise traps are an excellent way to passively collect the arboreal ant fauna without having to climb trees. It’s kind of like sticking your fishing pole between a couple of rocks and putting it on autopilot while you knock off for a few beers.
Setting up a Malaise trap with Jon Fassi.
Setting up a Malaise trap with Jon Fassi.
Only, we didn’t have any beers. What we did have were Winklers (or “winkles” to use a term of more intimate endearment). What Malaise traps are to arboreal ants, winkles are to ground dwelling ants. The idea here is to chop up a square meter of forest litter with a good sharp nasty looking bush knife, prey there are no Odontomachus down there, then toss the goods into a tied off bag with a section of 1/4″ screen in the middle.
You shake the dickens out of the rotting leaves and humus and downed twigs until your arms hurt, admire the ounce of particulate matter collected at the bottom of your bag, think about how many eye-popping arthropods are scrambling about down there, then convince your field assistant its his turn to do the next shake. Back at camp you fill up mesh bags with the sifted litter, hang those in an extracting bag, and watch as ant after ant crawls out the mesh and lands in a puddle of 95% doom.
Evan preparing Winkler extractions.
Evan preparing Winkler extractions.
There are a couple dangers of winklin’ in the rain. The first is that all the ants stick to the mud. The second is that the big nasty sharp bush knife gets slippery and the blade occasionally slices through your sock and opens up your shin. When your local guide roots around the jungle for a certain vine and squeezes the milk out into your wound, that’s when you just have to pray he knows what he’s doing. Not that ANYTHING like that happened on this expedition, though…

Anting the Solomon Islands, Part I

High adventure is both the blessing and the curse for the intrepid collector of ants. The tropical rainforests of Melanesia are a veritable Shangri La for those in quest of ants never before scoped at 40x magnification, but to reach that promised land of riches… one must be prepared to sacrifice.

It feels as if someone took a twisted rusty blade and skinned the soles of my feet. The day before I disobeyed the golden rule of hiking and went in wet and dirty socks. The little grits wore though the soggy softened skin of my feet and left a thousand stinging sores. Time is running out to find the Lordomyrma I so desparately need. Earlier in the morning, on the first leg down from the remote interior village of Marone, I put these ruined feet through dreadful paces, forcing myself into a desperate frenzy, going up and down the stream banks, overturning every stone I could find in search of the little beasts and paying no heed to my body’s deteriorating condition.

When I reached the village of Hauta, I climbed onto the porch and took off my wet shoes and socks to assess the damage. Gross. Oozing pustules of raw flesh pockmarked at the fringes and joined together in mass wounds at the trouble spots. Flies started flocking to my feet like carrion. Evan reminds me that this is what the Vietnam vets must mean when they talk about “jungle rot.”

I ask Joseph what they did for this kind of wound. He says, “lemon juice.” Lemon juice? I nod and Joseph disappears into the forest, coming back a few minutes later with a lemon plucked from a garden tree. Stuffing a bandanna between my teeth to keep from biting off my tongue I signal that I am ready. Carefully, Joseph winds a cotton batten around a stick and soaks it in the Mini Mouse cup of lemon juice. He gives me a last look as if to say he is sorry, then applies the saturated swab of mouth puckering liquid to my raw, open wounds.

Wow, that REALLLLY bleepin burns.

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Joseph Waihuru applying a cotten swab soaked in lemon juice to the stumps of agony previously known as Eli's feet.

I had arrived at Makira Island a few days earlier with my expedition partner, Evan Economo from UT Austin, glad to have escaped the grime and crime of Honiara. We had busied ourselves chewing Betelnut and marauding the nearby forest for some of the wonderful ants collected a century earlier by W. M. Mann. The pickings had slimmed considerably since Mann’s jaunt. Wasmannia auropunctata, the Little Fire Ant, had gotten to the island before us, and had lain waste to the livliehoods of the native ants, and the native people.

The Solomon Islanders are for the most part, subsistence farmers. Wasmannia is wreaking havok on their gardens. Many farmers have quit recently, and those who haven’t are harvesting at night when the ants are least active. Still, they pour down from the trees and leaves, bombarding the farmers with scores of painful stings. Wasmannia auropunctata is the scourge of the Pacific. It nests in every habitat imaginable, devours the arthropod biomass, suppresses the native species, and makes a misery of the lives of villagers who have no choice but to share their beds, clothes and meals with them.

A nest of the Little Fire Ant (Wasmannia auropunctata) from Makira Island.
A nest of the Little Fire Ant (Wasmannia auropunctata) from Makira Island.

The ant diversity is noticeably depressed in the lowland forests where reigns Wasmannia, but there are a few native species that managed to persist. One of the more interesting finds was made by Evan, who captured a small colony of Rogeria stigmatica nesting in a downed branch. This species has an absolutely spectacular defense that we observed firsthand, but I’ll refrain from posting the action shots until the account is properly published!

Rogeria stigmatica nesting in a downed branch
Cute little furry Rogeria stigmatica nesting in a downed branch. Don't get these gals upset, though, lest they declare war and unsheath their secret weapons!

Anxious to leave Wasmannia habitat behind, Evan I plotted an expedition up to the higher elevations of interior. The ants are always better just a little higher up the mountain, right? Our local host, John Fassi, helped arrange for guides and porters to take us 800 meters up to the village of Marone. Armed with a few pair of dry socks, bush knives, pooters and winklers we began our march to the first village on the track, Nara.

Expedition party
Expedition party on the way to Nara. Jon Fassi (USP student) in the blue polo shirt. JosephWaihuru with the hair and the goatee to the right of Jon. Evan Economo in (green shirt) & me (yellow shirt) in the "tropically challenged" skin. The rest are porters and Jon's hapless field assistants.

I remember the last time my feet were dry. It was before crossing the Evo river. Fortunately, our savvy guides took our bags from Evan, Jon and I, so all we had to do was keep our balance and not get swept away. The first half of the crossing was okay, but the current started picking up as the channel deepened, and soon enough I was swimming flat out for the other side — all the while getting swept downstream.

Guides and porters ferrying our gear across the Evo River
Joseph and porters ferrying our gear across the Evo River. I should have asked them to carry me, too.

I had all but given up when I heard Evan scream that he found Lordomyrma epinotalis — the fabled ant that, if I could only get a fresh specimen for the phylogeny, was to be the lynchpin of my grand theory of Melanesian biogeography! I renewed my strokes with determined vigor, grabbed a tree root with one hand, a porter’s arm with another, and was hoisted onto dry land. No, no, no! It was not the Lordomyrma. Anguish! Despair! One pair of socks was soaked, but there were two fresh pairs remaining, and a full week to catch my quarry.

And so we marched on, every step in those soaking shoes wearing down the skin just a little bit more…

Lichen-Like

In cerrado, one of the most striking features of the vegetation is the dense covering of lichens on the trunks and larger branches of the diminutive trees within the system. This patchwork of pale greens makes for a great background for photographing ants. Below are two workers of one of my favorite cerrado species, Cephalotes borgmeieri, taking a moment to share some food.

Cephalotes borgmeieri
Cephalotes borgmeieri workers engaging in trophallaxis

More significant than the benefits to the camera-toting myrmecologist, though, is that the lichen cover has had strong evolutionary implications for the native fauna.

Weevil mimic
Weevil

Lichen mimics are both abundant and diverse in the cerrado, and I tried to snap a quick shot whenever I encountered a new one. Unfortunately, I have not put names to these animals, but I think you’ll agree that the taxonomic diversity is quite amazing. Whereas some no doubt gain protective benefits from being green and crusty, others, like the spider, may be better suited to surprise potential prey. Scroll down to see the complete bunch that I managed to get decent shots of (others were too good at avoiding my camera lens). Some clearly did a better job than others in finding their model!

Mantid mimic
Mantid nymph
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Psocopteran (maybe)
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Spider
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Tree frog
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Katydid nymph
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Hemipteran nymph
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Mantid
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Katydid

A cerrado themed Myrmecos

As Alex mentioned, I will be standing in here at the Myrmecos blog for a few weeks. I thought I would try and stay true to Alex’s main theme of photo-based posts, but with my own little twist. So, the theme for the next couple of weeks will be ants (and other beasts) of the cerrado.

Even hardened tropical biologists are often unfamiliar with cerrado, which is a unique savanna-like habitat that covers much of central Brazil and small areas of neighboring countries. It is the poor relation in terms of research effort in the Neotropics, as most are drawn to The Rain Forest, but it is a myrmecologists dream. Much like wet tropical forests, an area of nice cerrado will be home to hundreds of ant species. The wonderful thing about the cerrado, though, is that the ‘canopy’ usually tops out at around 5m. This brings all those great arboreal ant species within arms reach, or at least from the end of a small step ladder. That’s me on the ladder, with a motley crew of biologists helping out with the harvesting of an experiment.

Working with arboreal ants in the cerrado
Working with arboreal ants in the cerrado

My plan is to share with you all a few of my own snaps from within and below the cerrado canopy. They will, I am sure, be biased towards my two favorite groups of ants, the Ecitoninae (a.k.a. the New World army ants) and the genus Cephalotes (a.k.a. the turtle ants), but I will try to squeeze in a few other interesting animals along the way. My hope is that this will be an enjoyable diversion until I hand the reins back to Alex.

Flea

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A deer flea hangs from a hair, California

I don’t ordinarily hang around animal carcasses.  But every now and again I’ll brave a fresh roadkill to shoot the parasites as they jump ship from the cooling body.  Fleas and lice are fascinating creatures, and as they are hardly ever photographed alive I can capture some unique images just by staking out a common subject that most people would not think to shoot.

photo details: Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x macro lens on a Canon EOS D60
ISO 100, f/13, 1/200 sec, flash diffused through tracing paper

Angry

Apparently either Jo-anne or I share a name with, or similar to, someone on the U.S. government’s secret terrorist watch list.  I can’t say which of us it is; no one at the airport is authorized to tell us that. All I know is we were prevented from checking in at the Tucson airport on Thursday without additional identification.

We can no longer check-in online or use the electronic kiosks until we go through a months-long process to try to clear whichever one of our names causes the problem.  During which time we’re advised not to travel.  This latter bit is unfortunate, since both of us have international meetings this summer.  There is the additional worry that in the future we may be forced through extra security, missing flights. Or worse, that Jo-anne (who is not a U.S. citizen) might be held up re-entering the U.S.

What stings the most is just how arbitrary this is.  I’ve done nothing.  Jo-anne’s done nothing. Yet we’re treated as second-class citizens as a consequence of nothing other than bureaucratic ineptitude and the creeping police state.  Granted, having to check-in with extra I.D. at the ticket counter is on the surface only a minor inconvenience, but convenience isn’t the issue.  The issue is this:

Once a name finds its way into the database, there’s no way to get it out. Citizens can write to the TSA to protest and declare their innocence, but the best they can hope for is to be placed on a meta-list of people who have asked to be removed.

“The net result is a no-fly list that is worse than useless. Many of the worst terrorists are kept off for security reasons, while innocent people are unable to clear their names. Far from keeping us safer, the TSA’s no-fly list has become a bureaucratic, terrorist and civil liberties threat in its own right.”

-from Alternet

Friday Beetle Blogging: Eusattus Dune Beetle

Eusattus dilatatus – dune darkling beetle (Tenebrionidae)
California, USA

Sand dunes are an unusual habitat, and the creatures found on them are equally odd. One of the more charismatic dune endemics is Eusattus dilatatus, a large darkling beetle found in southern California. This scavenging insect has long legs for digging and a waxy cuticle to prevent dessication.

Eusattus is not the easiest photographic subject. It seemed uncomfortable out in the open and would burrow as soon as I placed it on the sand. The series below spans 30 seconds.

**update** Tenebrionid expert Kojun Kanda corrects the identification from E. muricatus to E. dilatatus.

photo details: Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x macro lens on a Canon 20D
f/13, 1/250 sec, ISO 100, twin flash diffused through tracing paper