Tag Archives: Nature

The other ant-fungi

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If I were to mention an ant-fungus mutualism- that is, an ecological partnership between an ant and a fungus that benefits both- most biologically literate people might think of the famed leafcutter ants and the edible mycelia they cultivate.  But that is just one example.

Several other fungi have entered into productive relationships with ants, assisting especially in ant architecture.  Consider:

Lasius umbratus walking in the galleries of an underground carton nest (Illinois)

A larger view of the same nest. The intricate galleries are made from fungal mycelia growing through a matrix of ant-chewed wood pulp.

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Friday Beetle Blogging: Goldenrod Soldier Beetles

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Chauliognathus pennsylvanicus
Goldenrod Soldier Beetles
Illinois, USA

Here at Myrmecos Blog we aim for a family-friendly atmosphere.  Except for beetle sex.  Sometimes we just can’t resist.

(There’s also plant sex going on here too, if you’re into that sort of thing…)

Photo details: Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x macro lens on a Canon EOS 50D
ISO 100, f/13, 1/250 sec, diffused twin flash

A battle for the desert

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asf

Pogonomyrmex maricopa (at left) tussles with an Aphaenogaster albisetosa at the Aphaenogaster nest entrance.

While in Arizona, I chanced upon a set of ant fights that I’d observed several times previously.  Single workers of the maricopa harvester ant Pogonomyrmex maricopa would approach a nest of their competitor, Aphaenogaster long-legged ants, and spend a few minutes drawing heat from the guards before wandering off.

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Same thing, but different individuals (note differences in limb wounds from the previous photo)

The interaction is common enough that it really couldn’t be just a chance encounter.  Are the Pogos doing this for a reason?  Are they distracting the Aphaenogaster from foraging?  And, are there any myrmecology students in Arizona who need a little research project? It’d be great to figure out the purpose of the fights.

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Three on one. Do the Pogos subject themselves to this treatment as a decoy, to draw Aphaenogaster away from shared foraging territory?

photo details (all photos): Canon mp-e 65mm 1-5x macro lens on a Canon EOS 50D
ISO 100, f/13, 1/250 sec, twin flash diffused through tracing paper

The Phantom Ant of the Florida Dunes

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Paratrechina Nylanderia phantasma
Archbold Biological Station, Florida

Here’s an ant I almost didn’t notice.  Paratrechina Nylanderia phantasma is one of the least known insects in North America, active at night and restricted to a particular type of sandy soil in Florida.  Workers are only a couple millimeters long and the color of sand.  In the field they appear as ghostly little shapes skirting across the ground, scarcely visible even to those looking for them.

Incidentally, N. phantasma was named and described by James Trager, a frequent commentator here at Myrmecos Blog. Perhaps, if we’re really nice to him, James will tell us something more about this little ant.

[update 1/12/10, taxonomic change to Nylanderia]

photo details: Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x macro lens on a Canon EOS 50D
ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f13, flash diffused through tracing paper

Images of the Archbold Biological Station

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dawn in the scrub

dawn in the scrub

I spent last week in central Florida at the Archbold Biological Station.

Archbold preserves 5,000 hectares of Florida sand scrub, some of the last remaining patches of an ecosystem now largely lost to agriculture and strip malls.  The sand scrub is an odd place, a fossil beach from when sea levels were high enough to restrict peninsular Florida to a narrow sandbar.  Water runs right through the coarse sand, leaving the scrub looking much like a desert in spite of regular afternoon rains.  Cacti thrive.  It is a paradoxical place.

The scrub is also remarkable for receiving more lightning strikes than anywhere else on the continent: about 50 strikes per square mile per year.  So the scrub burns all the time, and has come to depend on frequent fire to maintain the structure of the forest.  This unique system has birthed dozens of sand- and fire-adapted plant and animal species that are found nowhere else.

The trip was a spur of the moment decision for me.  Budding myrmecologist Fred Larabee, a student here at the University of Illinois studying the evolutionary ecology of Odontomachus trap-jaw ants, was driving down to collect Archbold’s three resident species.  I hitched a ride.

Below are a few photos from the week.

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Pheidole Friday Beetle Blogging

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Who says we can’t have both beetles and Pheidole on Friday?

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A South African Sap Beetle (Nitidulidae) reacts to a swarm of Pheidole megacephala by retracting its legs and antennae, leaving little exposed but smooth chitin.  The ants have difficulty finding anything their mandibles can grab, even if they have the tank-like beetle surrounded.

photo details: Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x macro lens on a Canon EOS 20D
ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f13, flash diffused through tracing paper

Friday Beetle Blogging: Spotted Maize Beetle

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Astylus atromaculatus (Melyridae), Argentina

Astylus atromaculatus (Melyridae), Argentina

The spotted maize beetle Astylus atromaculatus is native to subtropical South America but has spread to warm regions in other parts of the world.  In late summer, adults congregate on flowers to mate and feed on pollen.

Astylus3

photo details (all photos): Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x macro lens on a Canon EOS 20D
ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/11-f13, flash diffused through tracing paper

A Guide to the Insect Field Guides of North America

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Eli

The summer insect season is upon us here in temperate North America, and with it comes the need for good identification guides.

Before I begin, a cautionary note.  We have so many species on our continent that were we to create a bird-type guide that listed all the insects, with their ranges and identifying characteristics, the full set would span at least 30 volumes.   Any book small enough to carry into the field necessarily omits more than 95% of the relevant animals.  Insect guides are understandably neurotic and overwhelmed compared to the corresponding bird and plant guides, and it’s worth remembering that guides represent the author’s judgment about which species are the most likely to be encountered.  With no guarantee, of course, that the mysterious bug in your hand is common.  Proper identification to species normally requires examination of a preserved specimen under high magnification with reference to the original taxonomic literature.

Having said all that though, let’s throw caution to the wind.  Here is my completely biased opinion* of the most prominent North American insect guides.

Kaufman1Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America.  The Kaufman guide was only published in the last couple years, but in that short period has become the first book I consult.   The reason is simple. This guide, written by Eric Eaton and Kenn Kaufman, makes no bones about being strictly an identification tool.  The pages are packed with stylized photos, stripped from their habitats and laid out next to each other for easier identification.  By skimping on the amount of text provided for each species, Eaton & Kaufman cover a broader array of species than competing guides- more than twice the number as the NWF guide, in fact.  An insect is more likely to show up in the pages of this guide than any other. Of course, the lack of accompanying biological detail is frustrating, but that’s the price of achieving both the smallest size and the greatest coverage. Highly recommended.

nwf1National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Insects and Spiders of North America. This handsome volume, authored by Art Evans, stands out for the depth of information provided for the illustrated species.  The photographs- many taken by the author- depict animals in their habitat, and the guide is among the most aesthetically pleasing books on the market.  The inevitable trade-off of providing more text per species is that fewer species are covered.  The NWF guide is not as likely to lead the reader to an identified insect as is the Kaufman guide, but the natural history detail in the text is much more satisfying for those insects that are included. Highly recommended.

nas1National Audubon Society Field Guide to Insects and Spiders. Decades out of date, riddled with creative misidentifications, and arranged in an utterly nonsensical manner, this book will provide hours of surreal amusement.  Some bugs are included with the beetles.  There are moths in the wasps, and flies in the bees, except for the ones placed with the ticks.  Or spiders.  In the book’s defense, the faux-leather binding is flexible and durable in the field, perhaps the most field-worthy of the lot, so you’ll be able to abuse this book for years and still be able to misidentify your insects just as easily as when it was new.  My advice?  Don’t bother.  Not recommended.

peterson1Peterson’s A Field Guide to Insects.  Peterson’s is the grandaddy of insect guides, now several decades past the original printing and slipping out of date, and digestable only by the already entomologically literate.  The vocabulary is technical, some of the characters arcane, and the illustrations are based on preserved specimens rather than live insects.  Non-specialists may lack the technical chops to properly use this guide. Or is it another sign that today’s kids just aren’t as smart as they used to be?  But I digress. For the persistent naturalist, the Peterson’s Guide offers the best hope for identifying rare and unusual insects short of consulting the original taxonomic monographs.  It’s a rigorous, professional, and satisfying guide.  If you’ve already passed Ent 101, that is.  Recommended only for more advanced users.

*disclaimer: The Kaufman and the NWF guide both licensed images from myrmecos.net in exchange for fistfuls of cash.