Wednesday, May 31, 2006

E. O. Wilson on the Meaning of Life

My husband just pointed out to me a cool website called or Cosmic Thinkers on Camera, which is connected to Slate Magazine. They have on camera interviews with Big Idea Guys on Big Ideas. I just finished watching the interview with E. O. Wilson and enjoyed it greatly.

At one point he is asked to comment on the idea that many people have, that in some ways sociobiology devalues human traits like love and altruism: "...the very idea that these things originated for self-interested reasons and sometimes are still deployed in a covertly selfish way, a lot of people say this devalues love or somehow unsettles them..."

To which Wilson replies: "I don't think so. I don't think it does devalue it, I imagine that some feel that it might but it's somewhat comparable to the truth that would come from thinking of the brain as the ... musical instrument that has been developed over millions of years and of the playing out of human nature ... in an evolving culture as a beautiful melody, and the emotions felt as part of it. And when you look at it that way and you realize there is almost infinite beauty possible from the instrument from the permutations and creations of the melodies then an organic origin ... does not become debasing at all."

I like that a lot. You can watch the entire interview here or read the transcript here. Interesting stuff, no matter what your beliefs are.

The frustrations of describing new species

I sometimes feel frustrated at the difficulties inherent in describing new ant species. Especially when they seem to be so prevalent. I myself am 100% sure that I have found at least six new species; the actual number is most likely quite higher. But what to do? It's such a chore to describe them and I have so many other things to do that they get pushed aside. And the general consensus in the ant world seems to be that it isn't worth describing a single new species. Much better to revise an entire genus. But who has time to do that? And the truth is that my new species may just as easily have been "discovered" by some other myrmecologist who also hasn't had the time to describe them.

But I suppose it could be worse. This was brought to mind this morning as I read about a recently described new species of plesiosaur. I say recently described, but not recently discovered. According to the article (published in the May 25, 2006 issue of Nature), it has taken 40 years to describe this thing. It took seven years just to dig it up and assemble it. After that it mostly just sat around since there was no money available to get the appropriate references, travel to museum collections, etc. The new species was finally described this month (T. Sato, Y. Hasegawa and M. Manabe. Palaeontology 49, 467–484; 2006). Describing new species might be a pain for myrmecologists, but at least what you're describing still exists, doesn't have to be constructed from random parts found in the ground, and doesn't need a crane to put together. I should count my blessings. The authors lament the lack of funds available for descriptive work. Amen, brother. The past couple of years seem to have had an upsurge in interest in biodiversity and the cataloging of all the species on earth. But I can't say any of these things seem to be resulting in actual money being given out to people involved in descriptive work. There are large grants being given out to institutions (PEET, for instance) but I don't know of any grant that I, as an individual, could apply for that would assist me with my work. There are all sorts of websites online now trying to put out lists of every species on earth but here I sit with a bunch of new species and I basically have no reason in the world to do anything about it except maybe a personal desire to further science and the satisfaction derived from giving something a cool name. And at this point in time, that's just not enough.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

What I have been doing: Not Solenopsis

Well, I haven't even looked at my Solenopsis. What have I been doing? I'm not sure. I felt like I was really busy but somehow nothing seems to have gotten done. Here is what I have done:

Boxes up all of my Attines and sent them off to Ted Schultz at the Smithsonian. Ted has graciously offered to identify my Attines for me and I wanted to send them off as soon as possible. This makes me feel like I am accomplishing something, even though I am not really.

Ted also inquired about my subterranean probe, which I then started to obsess about. I'm supposed to be working on a paper to publish the results of my probe study, but have been so involved with everything else that it has kind of gotten pushed aside. Now I am starting to think about it more and feeling the need to get cracking on that. So I spent some time reviewing wat I had done so far and thinking about what I needed to finish. I feel like I really need to finish the Solenopsis first, though, before I forget what I have already done and need to start over again. I did manage to do some data entry (long and tedious) updating the Solenopsis specimens I had already identified and creating new fields for the new species, etc. That took forever.

I also have been spending some time updating my webpages. I finally feel comfortable enough with my Gigantiops Destructor Store website to start telling people about it. I sent an email to The Ant Farm's Reading Room, and was able to get my site listed under "Ant-Related Items to Wear." Cool! And I sent an email out to basically everyone I know to go and check it out. And then of course I had to figure out if anyone was actually visiting my site, so I decided I needed to download a site tracker. This, of course, took several days of research to find the right one. My criteria -- it had to be free, accurate, useful, easy to use, and not result in me being inundated by ads and other crap. This was surprisingly hard to find. I ended up with Statcounter, which I have so far been happy with.

So.... I guess now would be the time to get back onto those Solenopsis. I'll get on that right away... But first, there was an NPR story this morning (and the past couple of days) about Tiputini! Check it out: Article: The Hidden Language of Insects; Audio: A Journey to the Edge of the Amazon; Audio: The Wilderness Chorus; Audio: Radio Expeditions. Not about ants but still cool. Tiputini is so awesome!

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Images finally updated

Okay, so I have finally finished updating all my images, putting them into my database, and putting them up on my webpage. Everything is up to date. Yay! I also realized that my pages are starting to show up prominently on google when you search for specific species. Awesome. My trial of Dreamweaver expired, so I decided to shell out the cash for an actual real copy of it since I seem to be using it an awful lot. I also realized that my copy of Mantis is the wrong version to put my database directly onto the web, so I tried to download the correct version and transfer it over but was unable to do so and finally gave up. I'll figure it out later. Right now I feel like I have been away from the ants for too long so I am going to try and finish those terrible terrible Solenopsis. Wish me luck.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Synchronizing and Copyrighting Images

So, I have spent the last few days trying to get my images into order. I'm not quite done, but I do have some advice for anyone out there with similar issues.

Synchronizing. This is very very important. There are a lot of free programs you can download off the net to help in this endeavor. I tried SyncToy, but didn't like it for some reason. It felt like it wasn't doing the right thing for me. Then I tried Allway Sync, and have been pretty happy with the program. It allows you to preview what it wants to synch and then you can change individual files by telling it to leave a particular file alone or to change the direction of the copy. It is fairly intuitive. The most important thing is to make backups of everything so that if anything goes wrong you can always go back to the older version. Make sure you understand what it is going to do before you hit that "synchronize" button. Trust me.

Another thing I have been trying to do is to put the copyright information on all of my images so that in the corner there will be a little "copyright K. T. Ryder Wilkie 2006" on each photo. After much shenanigans, I discovered that this can be done somewhat automatically in photoshop. I have an old version of photoshop and I was worried that this option was not available, but it is. Try this website for a tutorial. The one thing I would caution anyone about is that the font shows up differently depending on the size of the file, so you need to monitor each one as it is added to the picture and decide whether or not to accept the change. You might have to do several separate batches for differently sized images. It is definitely faster than opening up each image separately and adding the information manually, though.

Right now I am trying to figure out a fast way to delete all of the images (most of which are wrong or outdated) from my Mantis database and then upload all the new ones quickly. So far have had no luck. It appears that the only way to do this is to individually open up the species file, click on each individual image, delete it, and then upload each photo one by one back on. This will take forever, and I am stubbornly refusing to admit that there isn't a better way. There are rumors of a new version of Mantis, so I am hoping maybe that will improve the situation, but am not sure if waiting is really the logical thing to do. So I thought I would work on my blog instead.

Speaking of databases, there are a lot of programs out there made especially for taxonomic work. Here are some webpages and PDFs with more info:

I personally have never used anything besides Mantis, but am fairly happy with it. Some problems I have had include the issue I just mentioned above about ease of importing images and issues with the label function not working right (although having a label function at all is fantastic!). There is supposedly an updated version coming out soon so I am hoping these issues will be addressed.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Solenopsis Sucks!

Oh, how I hate thee, let me count the ways.

1) There are lots and lots of species but no good identification key. Nothing. Even Jack Longino doesn't have a key for Costa Rican Solenopsis. And he has a key for everything.

2) They are really really small.

3) A good many of them look very, very similar. There aren't a lot of good characteristics to latch onto so even putting them into morphospecies is difficult.

4) At the same time, there is quite a lot of variation within species in terms of size, color, etc.

5) I have a lot of them to go through -- 557 at last count.

5) I think they're looking at me funny.

I have just spent the last two days back at Harvard trying to get all of my Solenopsis specimens into morphospecies. I'm not done yet but I have made significant progress. I do have a couple of morphospecies that I feel very good about but I also have a lot of morphospecies that I do not feel good about at all. Fortunately, Stefan said he would take a look at them when I was done and see if he agrees with whatever I did, so at least I have that. Thank God. Things I have learned:

  • Solenopsis sucks (see above)
  • Every single one of my specimens which I thought were Carebarella were actually Solenopsis. This is good in that I have one less genus to deal with but bad in that I, apparently, also suck.
  • Staring at ants all day is hard. Taking a break is good. I recommend taking a break with someone who has cool ant tattoos like Corrie Moreau.
  • Thief ants, a subgroup of Solenopsis, have an awesome taxonomic history. I copied the following paragraph from an unpublished revision by Isidra Moreno Gonzalez and Bill Mackay which is on Bill Mackay's website:
"This group of ants was originally proposed as the subgenus Diplorhoptrum of Solenopsis by Mayr, in 1855. In 1862, Mayr synonymized the subgenus with Solenopsis, where it remained until 1930. Creighton (1930) revived it from synonymy with Solenopsis, where it remained as a subgenus until 1966, when Ettershank synonymized it again with Solenopsis. In 1968, Baroni-Urbani raised it to the status of a genus, later Kempf (1972) again synonymized it with Solenopsis, where it has remained (Bolton, 1987)." How fun is that?

Bill's site, by the way, does have a key to a portion of Solenopsis, but it is incomplete, has not been published, and may or may not be useful. I personally have not found it too helpful. I have pretty much given up on putting any names on anything and am just trying to sort to morphospecies at this point. I did get one actual name -- S. virulens -- on a giant fire ant, but am not expecting much more than that. I do have a couple of very distinct ones, though, so as soon as I can get my pictures up I will put them up on my website for everyone to see. Maybe someone will just be able to recognize them.

Monday, May 08, 2006

The virtues of Good Database Management

This post could also be titled, the sins of not keeping on top of crap and not having a good game plan from the beginning.

After returning from Harvard I decided I would spend the day uploading all my new identifications and new pictures to my various databases. At the moment I have my Mantis database, which is supposedly the master folder of all information related to my project. This stores all my specimen identifications, collection information, location information, images, etc. I have copies of this (just in case) on the school server, a portable hard drive, my home computer, and an old lab computer. I also have my webpage which contains a species list and images, which I am trying to keep up to date. When I started downloading my new pictures I realized that I had several copies of images in different folders, and that I had been working from different folders and updating the pictures randomly from the different folders so that now I am completely at a loss as to which are the most recent and up to date photos. So, lesson 1: make sure you know where your master folder is and keep on top of that. And make sure when you are making copies of your database that you are not accidentally overwriting more recent pictures.

Secondly, I greatly regret not taking pictures of the labels of my specimens. I have several photos of ants which are identified in the title as a species I know now that I do not have. But since I don't know what specific specimen the picture is from, I am unsure as to what species it is, I will either have to redo my photos or try to re-identify them from the photos. More wasted time. So, lesson 2: take photos of labels, not just ants.

Lesson 3: pick a format for naming files and be consistent with that format. This has been a huge problem for me. As an example. I have files named OdontomachusyucatecusH1.25x, Odontomachus yucatecusH1, Odontomachus_yucatecus H1.25, etc. And they're all copies of the same picture. It's worse when you get into new species or morphospecies or queens.

Lesson 4: don't take a picture of a specimen until you've identified it. This kind of goes along with lesson 2, I suppose, since this would be less of a problem if I had taken pictures of labels from the beginning. But I discovered I have a whole bunch of images with names like Crematogaster sp 1 or Azteca sp 4, etc. At this point those photos are just useless to me because I have no idea what specimen they belong to, what species they are, nothing. It was just wasted time on my part.

Lesson 5: Keep on top of your database. For awhile I was going to Harvard very regularly and taking lots of photos and doing lots of ID's, but not updating my database at home. I just figured I would get to it later. Bad idea. It is a much better idea to take a day taking pictures, and then the next day getting all those pictures into good shape and uploading them then it would be to take pictures for several days or weeks and then try to upload everything later. You will forget things. You will make mistakes. You will realize that you forgot to put a ruler in all your photos and if only you had realized that after the first day and not after a week of taking photos! You will realize you forgot to get certain information that you will be able to enter because it was only the day before. Trust me. This is good advice. At the moment I have photos with species names on them I know I don't have. I have multiple photos of obviously different species with the same name on them. I have photos that I am basically going to have to throw away because they are useless to me. I have multiple multiple copies of files with many different names that are the same image.

Right now I am in the process of trying to get a handle on the mess that is my database so I can feel confident moving forward. I am also going to research the little button on my Windows toolbar that says "synchronize." That seems useful. I will, as always, keep you updated.

The Ant Room in Vietnam

Just did a google search for "Ant Room" and found this wacky site:

I also found an interesting article from Smithsonian Magazine about the house in which the Ant Room sits, locally known as "The Crazy House."


Thursday, May 04, 2006

Spending the day at Harvard (The Real Ant Room)

On Monday and Tuesday of this week I went down to the Harvard ant room and spent the day comparing my ants to type specimens, taking photos of my ants, and occasionally bugging Stefan into looking at some weird ants that I couldn't figure out.

I brought specimens of Gnamptogenys concinna and Lachnomyrmex scrobiculatus, both of which were definitely identified correctly. I owe the identification of the Gnamptogenys to Dr. Longino's website, The Ants of Costa Rica. I was randomly surfing through some photos and came across G. concinna, which is so distinctive I knew immediately it was the same species as a couple of my specimens that I had previously been unable to identify. I had originally IDd these ants as Gnamptogenys but they are so much larger than the rest of my Gnamoptogenys that I thought I must be wrong, at which point I stuck them with my Acanthoponera because of the petiole shape. But I couldn't match it up with any known species. So I put it aside and decided to worry about them later, but am pleased to have IDd them at last.

I am trying my best to be as honest and detailed as possible about where I have gone wrong in my IDing, because I think this will be helpful for others. I hope this isn't too tedious for anyone else reading this. I suspect it will be a relief to anyone who has had similar frustrations.

I also brought with me a specimen which I had identified as Talaridris mandibularis. But when I got a look at the specimen of T. mandibularis (the only species in the genus), it was clearly wrong. So back I went to Bolton, and decided it must be a Rhopalothrix, even though the mandible dentition did not seem quite right. As it happens I have only one other specimen of Rhopalothrix, a queen, and I took a quick superficial look at both of them and decided they must be the same species. Since I had already confirmed (by looking at every species of Rhopalothrix at Harvard -- and convincing myself that the ones that weren't at Harvard couldn't possibly by the same -- and seeing that it looked nothing like my queen) that it was a new species, I asked Stefan to take a look and confirm for me that they were the same species. They were definitely not. He seemed fascinated by the queen which has some sort of labial plate which no other Rhopalothrix has. And he was even more interested in the worker, because of the mandibular dentition, which didn't seem quite to be like the classic Rhopalothrix dentition (this, of course, made me feel good about my original misidentification). So anyway, that was pretty cool. Maybe I will describe them as new species (in all my copious free time).

Of course I did other stuff as well. I went through all my Megalomyrmex and confirmed all the identifications. I have one new species for sure. I also took pictures of all my ants, which can be seen (eventually) at my research webpage:

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Ant Room Officially Opens!


Welcome to my new blog. After much procrastination I have finally decided that perhaps I have something to offer that at least some small percentage of the world might be interested in. Also, I am hoping that the idea that someone might be checking up on me will shame me into working a little harder. So, here commences The Ant Room, in which I will be keeping track (for my own benefit) of my daily progress in the identification of the ant fauna of Tiputini Biodiversity Station in Ecuador, the analysis of that data, and the pursuit of my PhD. I have found this process to be frustrating (to say the least) and perhaps my travails could be of some use to anyone else out there who might be engaged in similar endeavors.

My research webpage, with information about what exactly the point of all of this is:

My list of species to date, including pictures (constantly updated):

My webstore at cafepress, in which I sell my ant-themed designs on T-shirts, mugs, bags, etc. This is what I do when I need a break from IDing ants.