Archive for the ‘Navel-Gazing’ Category

Although this paper is several years old, I still read through it for a good laugh now and again. It’s a bold attempt by Aussie myrmecologist Alan Andersen to remedy the dearth of ant common names. Hilarity ensues.

Snugglepot Ant?

As we know, ants are too small and too numerous for most species to have caught the attention of the broader human populace. Few species have ever acquired a vernacular name, in any language, and biologists are generally happy to use the formal Latin nomenclature.

Genial Killer Ants?

Andersen’s hallucinogenic trip through the myrmecofauna is worth a read, though. I doubt most of the names will stick- for the same reason that the ants lacked common names in the first place- but I don’t fault him for trying.

Blue Pony Ant?

I do hope to work someday on Topless Cannibal Ants. It’d make great cocktail party conversation.

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I apologize for the slow blogging. I’ve been under the weather this weekend, and what energy I could muster went to more pressing things. Like patching an unfortunate hole in the kitchen wall from when the doorstop failed.

I also had some minor paperwork. I am being contracted to work remotely for a University in another state, and they sent along a question about what I’ve done “to foster multicultural understanding and cultural competence?”

While penning the obligatory bland response about international research and my old Peace Corps days, it occurred to me that many scientists who have to fill these things out can fall back on the inevitable international collaborations that pop up in a globalized scientific network. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s one of those small cheats that meets the letter but not the spirit of the question.

When I’m at a conference with researchers from around the world, I don’t feel like I’m doing anything cross-cultural. Even when we speak different languages, the overwhelming feeling is that I’m at home among my people. Anyone who can talk for hours about the taxonomy of Pheidole, or collecting techniques for leaf litter arthropods, or the latest phylogenetic algorithms, fundamentally belongs to the same culture regardless of whether they came to it from English, or Portuguese, or Mandarin.

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Monday Night Mystery

What’s this?

Five points for picking the family, five points for the genus.  And infinity points for figuring out what the those balloon-like structures are for. I have no idea.

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…at the scope.

Photo details: Tamron SP 11-18mm 4.5 on a Canon EOS 50D
ISO 800, f4.5, 1/50 sec

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Termite mounds visible in Australia's Northern Territory- I've circled three, but dozens are in the image.

Central Illinois still resembles the frozen lifeless tundra, so to get my bug-hunting fix I’ve been surfing about on Google Earth. Here at -13.066783, 130.847383 I’ve found something: Australia’s magnificent magnetic termites. The green things are trees, but the little black pimply bits?  Those are the termites.  On the ground they look like this:

A magnetic termite mound in north Queensland, Australia.

Why “magnetic”?

The mounds are shaped as thin blades along a north-south orientation as though following compass direction.  The reasons for this odd architecture are still a matter of research, but the general view is that the shape helps termites avoid the heat of the tropical midday sun, and the extra surface area allows for more efficient respiration.

The density of termite mounds can be impressive.

More insects in Google earth here and here.

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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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Feeling nostalgic this afternoon for my Peace Corps days, I did a Google Earth fly-by of my adoptive community, Colónia Once de Setiembre. Not only does Google show the site in high-resolution, the images are clear enough to see a patch of trees I planted with my neighbor in 1997. Judging from the shadows, our token attempt at reforestation must be at least 10 meters tall now.

The miracle of the internet also allows me to confirm that the economy of Once de Setiembre hasn’t changed much since I left.

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Here’s an issue that’s been on my mind as I’m shuffling trees around from several concurrent phylogenetic projects.

The primary output from phylogenetics programs is tree diagrams depicting the relationships among organisms.  Very clean, very crisp, very precise diagrams.  Precision isn’t in itself a problem, but for the human foible of mistaking precision for accuracy.

I’m not interested in a precise estimate of evolutionary history so much as a correct one.  I’m reminded as much when I see my estimates change from one precise conclusion to another as I add more data from more species.   The razor-sharp output from the algorithms is seductive.

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Do any of you know what this little animal might be?  I honestly have no idea, and rather than look it up I thought I’d crowd-source it to you folks first.

It was lurking on the underside of a leaf at the Archbold Biological Station in Florida along the shores of a sinkhole lake.  This was back in June.  It’s about a centimeter long.

update: It’s a hover fly larva.  Ted MacRae picked it- thanks!

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Myrmecos Blog appeared online two years ago today.   While I’m obviously the guy writing most of the posts, the reason we’re still on the air isn’t me and my bloviating.  It is all of you guys- the readers, the guest bloggers, the commentators. Without the life provided to the site by the many participants, I’d long since have lost the incentive to keep at it.  So, a heartfelt thank you.

If I had to finger any one difference between blogging in 2007 and blogging in 2009, it is this.  In 2007 blogs had already risen to mainstream acceptability, especially in the political, commercial, and feline sectors.  But academics still lagged, unsure of the medium.  Photo blogging was of course safe ground, but research blogging?

The landscape has shifted by 2009.  I’d now say blogging is not only an acceptable outlet for scientists, but one that if done right is highly desirable.  Can there be a more reliable indicator of a writer’s passion and knowledge than an active blog?

Below the jump, a few statistics on Myrmecos Blog traffic: (more…)

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