One of the more common ants in eastern North America is, ostensibly, Dolichoderus. I’ve read that, while restricted to particular habitat types, within those bogs and pine forests they are supposed to be abundant. In theory.
Yet in my entire decades-long career as an ant guy, I have never once seen them alive in North America. Anywhere. It got to the point where I was embarassed to admit such a glaring failure.
Anyway. I broke down and finally begged Ant Guru James Trager to send me a few live workers, and James kindly took pity on me. Herewith, at last, photographs of our North American Dolichoderus:
I have never been more pleased to report a taxonomic name change than this one. Long called “Tetramorium caespitum”, then “Tetramorium species E” once it became clear the Eurasian T. caespitum was a complex of cryptic forms, the pavement ant has spread across the world and is now among most common urban ants in North America. After decades of confusion, Herbert Wagner has published a fine monograph on the taxonomy of the species complex. Among Wagner’s many discoveries was that Santschi’s 1927 “immigrans” was valid for this world-traveller. An apt change, and a fine resolution of a long-standing problem.
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.
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.
I am extremely pleased to announce the 2016 BugShot Insect Photo Workshop! The event will be held for the first time in Austin, Texas, and will be instructed by Piotr Naskrecki, John Abbott, and myself. Our 3 1/2 day event will cover basic techniques in macrophotography in the field and in the studio, methods for working with live insects, and advanced techniques in focus-stacking and high-speed flash.
As usual, our location is a site of considerable natural beauty, with rustic lodging and classrooms on site, with nearby hotels for those who prefer more upscale accomodation. We will be at McKinney Roughs Nature Park, a 1,900 acre tract of woodlands, meadows, and canyons. These workshops are a real highlight of my year, not just for the nature and the photo nerdery, but for the community of wonderful people that has coalesced around the BugShot events. If you haven’t been yet, you should try to this year. We’d love to have you!
And now, an excerpt from my second mid-term exam for the BIO 453L class. Good luck!
8. Australia was able control its infamous bush fly problem by importing several species of:
a. Dung beetle
b. Robber fly
c. Orb-weaving spider
d. Green lacewing
9. In your new job as a forensic entomologist, you receive a sample of insects collected by police from a body discovered in a park. The sample contains mostly beetles in the family Dermestidae and moths in the family Tineidae. It is autumn and the weather has been cool. Would you estimate the PMI (=time of death) to be:
a. Within a day.
b. Within 2-3 days.
c. Between 4 days and 2 weeks.
d. More than 2 weeks.
10. Which insect order is indispensable, as cacao’s required pollinator, to the production of chocolate? (more…)
In recognition of the season, I am pleased to announce a Halloween print sale! What does this mean? I have priced 30 images of arachnids, centipedes, and zombie fungi at 70% off, nearly at cost, until November 1. If you’d like to pick up an Arachtober surprise, have a look at the link below:
Looking for a challenge? Here are a few questions from the midterm examination of my current Entomology course.
29. Which of the following animals’ life cycles is most likely to include a puparium?
a. house fly
b. silkworm moth
c. monarch butterfly
d. rove beetle
30. Sclerotization is the process by which:
a. spiracles close to prevent water loss
b. coremata release pheromones as a sexual attractant
c. the exocuticle hardens following ecdysis
d. the wax layer is formed as a barrier to water loss (more…)
You may remember a recent viral video showing an undescribed predatory ant behavior. It turned out that myrmecologists Christian Peeters and Stéphane de Greef had observed these ants in the field, but they’d not assembled enough data to publish, leaving us all in the dark about how the ants coordinated the amazing millipede-hauling chains.
I was stung by a bullet ant last week in Costa Rica. On purpose.
How did it feel?
Bearable. Given this species’ fearsome reputation, I was expecting worse. It certainly hurt, though.
It wasn’t just the initial sear from the sting’s penetration, imparting all the sharpness one would anticipate from a relatively large hymenopteran, but the way the pain sank beneath the skin.
The bullet ant has a reputation for feeling like a firearm wound. Having never been shot, I can’t make much of the comparison. I imagine an actual shooting would be far more traumatic, but all the same I understand where the name comes from. A Paraponera sting feels more profound than the average insect sting. Like tissue or bone damage, it is a deep throbbing ache that crescendos over several hours. Unlike a honey bee sting, whose sharpness gives way quickly to a dull itch, the bullet ant’s sting is the gift that keeps on giving. Less a gunshot, I suppose, than the lasting pain following a solid crowbar to the arm. Although bearable, mine still ached when I went to bed 8 hours later. All pain was gone in the morning.
We tend not to make much of where on the body we’re stung, but stings are like real estate. Location, location, location. The forearm is a relatively mild substrate, a safe place to experiment with stings. I was once zinged on the tip of the nose by a common honey bee. Holy bejeezus. I’ll take twelve bullet ants to the arm before I wish to relive that one.
(Special thanks to Andrés Rojas and Erica Parra for planning the session and wrangling the ants! For more gruesome bullet ant entertainment science, see them and others getting zinged at StingFest 2015).