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Archive for the ‘Taxonomy’ Category

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.

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Myrmicocrypta camargoi Sosa-Calvo & Schultz 2010
Brazil

The world’s ant fauna continues to yield new treasures. Myrmicocrypta camargoi, described in a new paper by Jeffrey Sosa-Calvo & Ted Schultz, is the largest species in this fungus-growing genus.


source: Sosa-Calvo, J., Schultz, T.R. 2010. Three Remarkable New Fungus-Growing Ant Species of the Genus Myrmicocrypta (Hymenoptera: Formicidae), with a Reassessment of the Characters That Define the Genus and Its Position within the Attini. Annals of the Entomological Society of America 103(2):181-195.
doi: 10.1603/AN09108

artwork by Vichai Malikul

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Leptomyrmex darlingtoni, Australia

A big day for ant evolution! The Ant Tree of Life research group (AToL) has published their dolichoderine phylogeny in the journal Systematic Biology.

Dolichoderines are one of the big ant subfamilies, comprising just under ten percent of the world’s ant species. These are dominant, conspicuous ants noted for having ditched the heavy ancestral ant sting and armor in favor of speed, agility, and refined chemical weaponry. Most dolichoderines live in large colonies with extensive trail networks, and they fuel their frenetic lifestyle through copious consumption of hemipteran honeydew.

The paper is unfortunately behind a subscription barrier, but I’ve reproduced the primary finding below. (more…)

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No, not really. I’m just kidding. Wouldn’t it be great to have an ant field guide, though?

Off and on for the past couple years I’ve been playing with concepts. A potential format is this (click to download pdf):


The salient features, in my opinion:

  • Targeted at the general naturalist, so less technical than the excellent Fisher & Cover guide
  • Organized around genera, as species IDs remain problematic without microscopes
  • With synopses of the most commonly encountered species
  • Containing brief chapters on ant ecology, collection, culture, etc

But that’s what I’d like in an ant book. The reason I’m posting this little teaser is to learn what you would like in an ant book.

What information should be covered? What do you like and dislike about the sample above? Would you prefer a guide that is more comprehensive and heavy, or more concise and portable? Should we sell it as an iPhone app in addition to, or instead of, a book? What do you think?

[note: Yes, I do know of the other ant guide effort. There is a significant chance that our projects will merge- in which case your feedback here will be useful to an even greater number of people].

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I had an assignment this weekend to shoot preserved insects as if in a museum display collection. Dead bugs aren’t normally my thing, but there’s something to be said about subjects that stay put and allow me to arrange lighting without scurrying off. I pinned the insects in foam-bottomed trays and reflected the strobe off an overhead white board. More photos below.

(more…)

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WebMD Taxonomy Fail

Not a fire ant.

But I’ll give ten Myrmecos () points to the first person who can identify what species it really is.

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Theodore Pergande (1840-1916)

Over 12,000 ant species have been described since the inception of modern taxonomy 252 years ago. From Formica rufa Linneaus 1758 to Paraparatrechina gnoma LaPolla & Cheng 2010, where did all those names come from?

Now it’s easier than ever to find out. The Global Ant Project is assembling a biography for each of the 917 people responsible for our current taxonomy. These are the researchers who have defined the species, assembled them into genera and subfamilies, supplied the latin names, and refined the work of their predecessors.

Efforts like these help us realize is that taxonomy is fundamentally a human endeavor. In spite of its scientific foundations the practice remains full of guesswork, mistakes, reversals and disagreements. Jean Bondoit (1882-1952) apparently carried a revolver to meetings. Eric Wasmann (1859-1931) was among the first Catholic clergymen who stood up for Darwin’s theories- outside the human lineage, at least. The Global Ant Project’s directory offers a little peek behind the curtain. Check it out.

(And that Alex Wild? What a charming fellow…)

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