Posts Tagged ‘national geographic’


National Geographic remains the world’s premier showcase of nature photography. But I often wonder for how much longer.

It is easy to maintain a virtual monopoly on high quality imagery when camera equipment and publishing are expensive and require a highly specialized skill set.  But neither of these things is true anymore.  Professional-quality photo equipment is broadly affordable. And numerous online venues allow anyone with an internet connection to distribute their photos for free.

Consider the following fantastic arthropod photographers, all from the galleries of the free online site Flickr:

While these amateur photographers show stylistic differences among themselves and from established Nat Geo insect photographers Mark Moffett and Christian Ziegler, I’m not sure one could find consistent differences in overall artistry between the amateurs and the professionals.  And given the abundance with which amateurs share their work online, it is now possible to get a fix of rich nature photography for free.  At any hour.  Without waiting for the mailman to deliver it.

Incidentally, I do enjoy Nat Geo when it arrives on our doorstep every month.  I’m not knocking the organization or the quality of their publication.  I just wonder about the brand’s longevity as a seal of transcendent quality when the world is now drowning in spectacular photography.

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Swooping down from the top of a saguaro down to the desert floor: Howard moves the crane while Martin drives the camera.

Swooping from the top of a saguaro down to the desert floor: Howard Bourne swings the crane while Martin Dohrn drives the camera. Tucson Mountain Park.

What was I doing in Arizona last month?

Thanks for asking.  I was helping a film crew wrangle harvester ants for an upcoming National Geographic documentary.  The crew, an all-star cast of nature cinematographers including Martin Dohrn, Howard Bourne, and Gavin Thurston, is still in the field- you can follow their progress by blog. The program is tentatively titled “Planet of the Ants” and should be on television in 2010.

If there’s one thing I learned from the experience, it is that nature films are strenuous work.  A night with more than 5 hours’ sleep was unusual.  We’d often film well past midnight, only to be up before dawn to catch the early morning foragers at another site.  The equipment occupies 20 heavy cases and is constant need of being loaded, unloaded, or carried about here and there.  The hotter the temperature (and we saw temps in Tucson above 108º), it seems the farther and more frequently the gear needed to be ferried about.

But no matter.  The shoot was tremendous fun, and I could not imagine a more genial lot than Martin, Howard, and Gavin.  Below is a photo essay from the week.


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Forelius mccooki (small ants) & Pogonomyrmex desertorum
Tucson, Arizona

In last August’s National Geographic, photographer Mark Moffett has a controversial photo essay depicting a large, motionless harvester ant being worked over by smaller Dorymyrmex workers. Moffett’s interpretation of the behavior is this:

While observing seed-harvester ants on the desert flats west of Portal, Arizona, I noticed workers would approach a nest of a tiny, unnamed species of the genus Dorymyrmex. A harvester would rise up on her legs with abdomen lifted and jaws agape, seemingly frozen in place. Soon one or more of the little Dorymyrmex would climb aboard, licking the harvester here and there. This odd ant cleaning behavior brings to mind the interaction between some reef fish and typically smaller “cleaner fish”.

Cleaner ants are an amazing hypothesis, if true.  However, most myrmecologists with whom I’ve discussed the behavior are skeptical. For starters, no one has done the experimental work required to test the hypothesis.  To have an idea, attractive though it may be, splashed about on the pages of a major magazine without first undergoing any sort of rigorous evaluation rubs scientists the wrong way. After all, National Geographic has been burned by fraud in the past.  And then, the “cleaner ants” in some of the photos look like they are biting pretty hard, more in line with ordinary defensive behavior.

Regardless of what it means, these harvester ant/dolichoderine interactions are striking.  I’ve seen it a few times myself, with Pogonomyrmex barbatus and Dorymyrmex near Portal, and here in Tucson with P. desertorum and Forelius mccooki (shown in the photograph at the top). The harvester ants freeze up when they bump into a foraging trail or nest entrance of the smaller dolichoderines, and the smaller ants swarm up over them until the large ant eventually wanders away.  Someone really ought to give the behavior a proper study.

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