Male ants demystified

The following is a guest post by Myrmecologist Brendon Boudinot.

The objective of this guest post is to raise awareness of and demystify, in part, the doubled secret of every worker and queen ant’s genome: male ants. It is well known that male ants are produced by arrhenotokous parthenogenesis, i.e. from unfertilized eggs. What is vastly less known is the male ant itself. Male ants are the dark side of the moon for myrmecology. We know full well that they exist, but we hardly know their diversity, ecology, and behavior, and we often willfully ignore males. When I had the pleasure of meeting E.O. Wilson, he said to me that it’s a good thing I work on male ants as, for example, when male ants come to one’s porch light, one’s first reaction is “not to collect them, but to turn the light off.”

Figure 1. Representatives of the adult castes of ants (Camponotus discolor, Formicinae). Alate queen right, worker center, male left.


Ant Hunting in a Rare Illinois Sand Prairie

Sand Ridge State Forest, Illinois

It’s been too long since I’ve done a good old-fashioned anting expedition. So I took a break on Wednesday to see a part of Illinois rumored to be profoundly different from the rest of the state: Sand Ridge State Forest, a quiet patch of public land southwest of Peoria.


The unique character of Sand Ridge stems from its geologic history. The glaciers ended here, dumping a pile of sand atop the resident clay. The soils here are dry and well drained, a stark contrast to the surrounding tallgrass prairie. As Sand Ridge is too nutrient poor to farm, the land was preserved as a blend of shortgrass sand prairie and woodland. (more…)

Thaw yourself a custom ant nest, in the field

ice_nestWalt Tschinkel is a genius:

In this paper, I describe a method based on the burial of a nest constructed of ice. The hollow space that remains after the ice melts is a facsimile of the ant nest as designed by the experimenter.

Want to see, in the field, how a colony of ants reacts when introduced to an alien architecture designed by a different species? Or, perhaps you’d like to establish lab-altered colonies in a field experiment without wasting energy on nest construction. Or, maybe you’re just looking for a kinder, gentler way to release pet ants back to their original habitat. Either way, the field-melted ice nest is an elegant technique.


source: 2013. Tschinkel WR (2013) A method for using ice to construct subterranean ant nests (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) and other soil cavitiesMyrmecological News 18: 99-102.

The Frustration of the Taxonomist

A miserable Brachymyrmex patagonicus worker, who for some reason is caring for her awful, cocooned sisters. (Tucson, Arizona)

Scientists aren’t expected to interject opinionated commentary in the more technical parts of their work. Yet I enjoy the little disciplinary lapses that allow judgmental biases to trickle through.

Below, I’ve scanned in a couple of my favorite examples from the ant taxonomic literature:

Brachymyrmex was Creighton’s least favorite ant. (From Creighton [1950] The Ants of North America)
George and Jeanette Wheeler were apparently tired of Aphaenogaster occidentalis. (From Wheeler & Wheeler [1986] Ants of Nevada)

Stay in Shape with Ant Science

California Academy of Sciences entomologist Brian Fisher digs deep into rainforest soil to look for rare ants. Kibale Forest, Uganda, during the August 2012 Ant Course.

Myrmecology is not all sedentary microscope work and beer-drinking. Sometimes field work can be strenuous. Here, ant guy Brian Fisher digs a trench to look for soil-dwelling ants. This particular excavation did not produce any surprises, but I did net a lovely Pristomyrmex.

Pristomyrmex africanus

photo details:
(top)Canon 17-40mm f4L wide-angle zoom lens on a Canon EOS 7D
ISO 1600, f/4.5, 1/60th sec
off-camera fill flash

(bottom)Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x macro lens on a Canon EOS 7D
ISO 200, f/13, 1/200th sec
diffuse twin flash

The Ants of Fiji, and the relative caution of modern taxonomic practice

Eli Sarnat and Evan Economo have a beautiful new paper out on the Ants of Fiji. It’s open-access, too:

Plate 105 from Sarnat & Economo 2012, just one of many clean, clear illustrations.

This study is not the first to cover the myrmecofauna of the Fijian islands. Worth reading, for contrast, is William M. Mann’s 1921 classic paper on the same topic:

In particular, notice that the 1921 paper is full of new species descriptions, while the newer monograph refrains from describing a single new ant. It’s tempting to think the earlier work cleared most of the descriptions out of the way, accounting for the difference. But chronology is not it at all. Sarnat & Economo include a stack of undescribed ants (see the Poecilomyrmex, for example), so they had ample opportunity to follow Mann’s lead.

Instead, this modern taxonomic caution has become the norm. It’s a cultural change in the intervening 90 years as taxonomists adopted the Darwinian synthesis. Biologists as a group are more focused on underlying evolutionary processes, rather than simply describing observed diversity.

Increasingly, taxonomists leave descriptions of new species to more detailed studies of particular lineages on a global scale, often in conjunction with a phylogeny. Thus, species are described in global monographs focused on particular genera or species groups. We see new species in revisions of the Ants of Genus X, rather than in papers on the Ants of Region Y.

source: Sarnat, E.M. & Economo, E.P. (2012) Ants of Fiji. University of California Publications in Entomology, 132, 1-398. [pdf]

Course Announcement: Ants of the Southwest

You may be familiar with the California Academy of Science’s extremely popular Ant Course, which offers intensive taxonomic training in a once-a-year workshop held at an exotic locale. Ant Course is fantastic, with all its taxonomicky taxonomy and systematicky systematics. What if your anty interests, however, tend more to ecology and behavior?

A new course is being offered this summer just for you:

Ants of the Southwest
21-31 August, 2012

The American Southwest is a hotspot for North American ant diversity, with over 350 species of ants known from Arizona, and a variety of ecologically interesting taxa – including leafcutters, harvester ants, army ants, and honeypot ants. In this 10-night course, participants will gain knowledge of the outstanding diversity, ecology, and behavior of southwestern ants. This course is designed with curriculum that complements rather than competes with the California Academy of Sciences Ant Course, which is also held at the SWRS once every three years and focuses heavily on the taxonomy and systematics of ants. Although this course also covers basic taxonomy and systematics, its major focus will be on the ecology and behavior of ants.

The course will include lectures, field trips, field experiments, and labs. Participants will obtain hands-on experience in experimental techniques with both field and captive ant colonies. The course will also cover current topics in ant behavior and ecology research. Students will leave the course with a small collection they create, and may have the opportunity to set up a captive laboratory colony.

Benoit Guenard figures out the easiest places to record new ant genera

If you follow myrmecology on the internet, you probably know about Benoit Guenard’s Global Ants database. Benoit has spent years combing disparate biological literature and natural history collections to compile a comprehensive map of where all the 300-some ant genera are known to live. This information is useful in its own right (want to know which ants live in that tropical vacation destination?) but the database is more powerful that that. It can be used to make predictions about where in the world we are most and least likely to make new genus & species records.

Top: the number of ant genera recorded from various political divisions (darker=more). Bottom: model predictions of undercollected regions (yellow & blue are different models; black is where both models agree). Modified from Figures 1 & 3 in Guenard et al 2012.

In a clever paper out this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Benoit and his colleagues Michael Weiser and Rob Dunn apply a pair of mathematical models to the database to locate spots on the map with far fewer known ant genera than their location might predict. Because ant researchers have tended to work more in particular countries and less in others, what this project has effectively done is pinpoint the under-studied corners of the globe. Places where even common ants have gone uncollected.

Off to Cambodia it is, then.

source: Guenard, B. et al 2012. Global models of ant diversity suggest regions where new discoveries are most likely are under disproportionate deforestation threat. PNAS published online before print doi:10.1073/pnas.1113867109.