Here’s something that bugs me. Instead of emphasizing the real significance of the find, a discovery like the “Mars ant” Martialis heureka is usually condensed down to “Wow, this ant is weird!”.
I’ve pasted below a sampling of leads:
Newly-Discovered Bizarre Ant – Boing Boing
‘Ant From Mars’ Discovered in Amazon Rainforest – Fox News
‘Ant from Mars’ found in Amazon jungle – Science News
But weirdness misses the point. We have weird ants already. The suicidal exploding Camponotus is plenty weird. So are the gliding ants, and the ants that swim. The real story here is the evolutionary position of Martialis. Among the first things that happened after the emergence of ants was speciation into two lineages: one leading to Martialis, the other leading to all the other ants.
What’s the point? The important scientific findings are those with implications that reach beyond the immediate discovery. Having this new lineage attached to the ant evolutionary tree is all fine and good in its own right, but this new branch will allow for all sorts of new evolutionary studies. Biologists use evolutionary trees to measure rates of changes in key traits, and to test hypotheses about the sequence of evolutionary events and the processes behind them. For students of evolution, the significance of Martialis is akin to the launch of a new space telescope for astronomers. We’re in a better position to test some of these ideas we have about how insects evolve.
I don’t mean to tar the journalists here. Some news outlets get it. Nature news, for instance, draws an appropriate analogy by calling Martialis the myrmecologists’ platypus, and Discover’s headline reads “Ant from Mars Offers Clues to Insect Evolution.”
Instead, the fundamental problem is that most non-biologists don’t understand what evolutionary scientists do. Journalists may or may not understand evolution, but they have to write for the untrained public. So the main point is too often dumbed-down to a simple, yet irrelevant, “Darn, that’s strange”.
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