Thursday, July 13, 2006

Where are the mechanical mole machines?

Well, I have been woefully remiss in keeping up with this blog. I blame the upcoming IUSSI conference, for which I have been trying to complete a poster for. In preparing the poster, I have gotten sidetracked by my readings and confused by statistics and right at this moment I am freaking out because I have less than a week to finish this thing. Anyway, my poster is about subterranean ant diversity and a new underground probe we developed in order to capture soil ants. I have been reading a lot about how important subterranean ants (and other fauna) are, and how little we know about them, and how critical it is for everybody to hop on this soil bandwagon, step up to the plate, and come up with some information, some data, some fabulous new methodology to study this highly significant and undersampled fauna. Of course what I have found (as I'm sure anyone else who has looked intot his subject has found) is that not very many people have done so. Or if they have, they haven't published their findings. It's understandable. Soil ants are awfully difficult. And myrmecologists, in my opinion, are chronically overworked and behind. Every ant person I've ever met has drawers and boxes full of samples in their lab or tucked away in some corner that they will get to work on "next week" or "as soon as I finish this thing I'm working on right now." When I first started working on ants my eyes would get big when someone would say something to me like "yeah, I found a new species of that genus last year, but I don't have time to get to it right now." How could you not have time to make history, name a new species, add to the scientific knowledge of mankind? Well, now I know. Cause you're busy. And there's always something else that needs to get done first. And it's hard. And a lot of the time it seems pointless unless you can do a genus revision. And who the hell has time for that? And it's not like there's a lot of money in it. (On a side note, why isn't there money in it? I would like to talk about this a bit more in the future, but right now I must FOCUS and finish this blog so that I can get back to focusing on my poster.). So things sit around and it's hard to motivate yourself into creating some fantastic new method for looking at underground ants.

But I digress. In my research I came across an organization called The IBISCA Project (Investigating the BIodiversity of Soil and Canopy Arthropods). I thought -- fantastic -- a whole big group of people dedicated to looking for canopy and soil ants. They must be using the latest and greatest technologies. Well, they are -- for canopy ants. The IBISCA Project is currently in the process of measuring the "beta diversity and vertical stratification of arthropods in a Neotropical forest in Panama" using such contraptions as a canopy crane, a “canopy raft”, a manned helium balloon, and a “treehouse” (Corbara et al 2005). These are in addition to canopy fogging, composite flight-interception traps, beating, light traps, sticky traps, ground flight interception traps, malaise traps, and bait traps. In woeful comparison, the only methods that are listed for soil collection are Winklers and pitfall traps, two methods that do a good job of collecting ants from the leaf litter, but not the primarily subterranean ants.

So what's up? Cranes? Manned helium balloons? That is some wacky, creative (not to mention expensive) thinking there. Why can't we come up with something similar for soil fauna? Where are the mechanical mole machines? The subterranean video monitoring systems? The hypogaeic listening devices? The back-hoe engineered plexi-glass viewing panel so we can just sit in a chair and record underground behavior while sitting on a beach chair? Come on people! Surely we can do better than this!

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