This… I… um… What?

See how long you can make it through the photo caption with a straight face:

(this photo and associated misinformation is copyrighted by Adegsm/Solent. My reproduction of it here is editorial commentary and as such is Fair Use under U.S. copyright law).

Ant no love like a mother’s love…A mother ant shows off her strength and agility as she plays with her young child and lifts it above her head. The yellow ant stood on a delicate purple flower and balanced on her back two legs as she juggled the youngster, who is a third her size. Photographer Adegsm (real name Thanh Ta Quang), who took over 2,000 snaps of the ants in a month but only got a handful of pictures he was happy with. SEE OUR COPY FOR DETAILS…Main pic: The ‘mother’ ant lifts her youngster above her head…Please byline: Pic: Adegsm /Solent..© Adegsm/Solent.UK +44 (0) 2380 458800.


If you think that’s bad, the alleged newspaper Daily Mail went and ran with the concept, somehow finding space in the error-fest to interject more:

A spindly yellow ant looks bewitchingly human as she lifts her son high overhead in a game that will be familiar to any parent.

Photographers are people who know about cameras. We’re basically dumb as a sack of bricks about everything else. Smart editors know this and don’t trust photographers to tell them anything beyond the EXIF data. The Daily Mail, on the other hand…


Pest Control Fail

The Argentine Ant Linepithema humile hasn’t been known under the name Iridomyrmex humilis since 1992, when Steve Shattuck modernized dolichoderine taxonomy. Since then, every scientific study on this ant has been published under the new combination.

Why would anyone trust a pest control company that hasn’t read the technical literature on an important pest in the last 20 years?

Failed Photography: The Worst of Myrmecos

[I’ve been getting plenty of fan mail recently. So I thought I might stem the tide by reposting The Worst of Myrmecos, from 2008]

I have thousands of absolutely awful photographs on my hard drive. I normally delete the screw-ups on camera as soon as they happen, but enough seep through that even after the initial cut they outnumber the good photos by at least 3 to 1. Here are a few of my favorite worst shots.


Thinking that nothing would be cooler than an action shot of a fruit fly in mid-air, I spent an entire evening trying to photograph flies hovering over a rotting banana. This shot is the closest I came to getting anything in focus.


The Taxonomy Fail Index

It occurs to me that an objective measure of the amount of Fail in a given misidentification could be useful.

I propose the following:

A = the actual taxon of the pictured organism
B = the taxon as misidentified
T = the number of million years since A and B shared a common ancestor*
H = the number of million years since humans and our closest relatives,
the chimps, shared a common ancestor.

Taxonomy Fail Index (TFI) = T/H

In other words, the Taxonomy Fail Index scales the amount of error in absolute time against the error of misidentifying a human with a chimp.

If I were to run a story about Sarah Palin, but accidentally illustrate it with a photo of a bonobo, that would be a taxonomy fail of magnitude 1.

The classic Taxonomy Fail of possum/cat has a TFI of 24.6.

The yellow jacket/honey bee fail in the last post has a TFI of 25.2, or slightly stupider than mistaking an opossum for a cat.

Snope’s insistence that scale insects are “beetles” (via Bug Girl) is even stupider, TFI = 58. In fact, now that we can quantify the Fail, we see that Snopes fails more than twice as hard as the possum cat.

See? Science can be fun.

* A quick and easy way to get ancestry dates is the timetree of life

Taxonomy Fail

Today’s breaking news in Ant Science is this:

Newly discovered pieces of amber have given scientists a peek into the Africa of 95 million years ago, when flowering plants blossomed across Earth and the animal world scrambled to adapt.

Suspended in the stream of time were ancestors of modern spiders, wasps and ferns, but the prize is a wingless ant that challenges current notions about the origins of that globe-spanning insect family…Inside the Ethiopian amber is an ant that looks nothing like ants found in Cretaceous amber from France and Burma.

Wow- that’s big news! I wonder what this amazing Ur-ant looks like? Fortunately, WIRED has a photo:

WIRED's caption- "Photos From Alexander Schmidt/PNAS: 1) Wingless ant"

Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but I’ll venture that this ant looks nothing like the other ants because it is, in fact, a beetle. With clearly visible elytra, and everything.

And because the press coverage is coming out ahead of the release of the PNAS paper, we can’t check the study to see if this is WIRED’s error or if the researchers themselves actually mistook a beetle for an ant.

update: The PNAS paper (Schmidt et al., 2010, Cretaceous African life captured in amber, PNAS doi 10.1073/pnas.1000948107) is now out.  And yes, the mistake lies with the authors, as Fig. 3A shows the same beetle labeled as an ant.  They write:

The most outstanding discovery is a complete, well-preserved although enrolled, wingless female ant (Formicidae; Fig. 3A). Visible characters preclude affinities with the extinct Sphecomyrminae, which is the only subfamily recorded for contemporaneous and older ants in mid-Cretaceous Burmese and French amber (15, 16). Regardless of the subfamily, this discovery is significant because it is one of the oldest records of an ant and the earliest from Gondwana. It has been suggested that ants arose in Laurasia during the Early Cretaceous (16–18), but the present discovery challenges this hypothesis. Ants evolved concurrent with the rise of angiosperms but apparently remained scarce until radiating into the world’s most diverse and ecologically dominant eusocial organisms during the Paleogene (19). The discovery will aid in resolving the phylogeny and timescale of ant lineages.

Unless, of course, the ant is a beetle. Who the hell reviewed this paper?

update 2: on Roberto Keller’s visualization, I’m now viewing this thing as possibly not a beetle either. But still not an ant.

update 3: in the NYT, too? Ug.