Thursday, August 31, 2006


I have no idea what this photo is about but it is awesome. It came up on a google image search. You can find the original webpage here, but it is all in German.
Update -- 3.5.07: So sad, this link no longer seems to exist. It was a fantastic page in German showing several gigantic models of Cephalotes in various artistic poses. I was never sure what the purpose was, and I guess now I'll never know.

Alright, enough philosophy for now. Back to work!

I have updated my Cephalotes page. Scott Powell was able to look at my Cephalotes and return them to me fairly quickly. Yay! Today I was able to go over his identifications and compare them to my original identifications, and re-evaluate my evaluations. My final list of Tiputini Cephalotes is:

Cephalotes atratus
Cephalotes cordatus
Cephalotes laminatus
Cephalotes maculatus
Cephalotes manni
Cephalotes marginatus
Cephalotes minutus
Cephalotes n. sp. near maculatus
Cephalotes n. sp. near palta
Cephalotes opacus
Cephalotes pallidus
Cephalotes pavonii
Cephalotes peruviensis
Cephalotes ramiphilus
Cephalotes spinosus
Cephalotes umbraculatus

I don't have any new photos, but hopefully soon. I know how helpful those can be. I had 9 specimens which I was unable to identify. He was able to put a name on almost all of them, while identifying two possible new species. I also gave him 13 samples of the species I had identified, and he confirmed some of them and disagreed with others. Here are some details that might help someone else if they are trying to identify Cephalotes:

Original ID: palustris; Actual ID: pavonii

Scott says: "C. pavonii vs. C. palustris. C. pavonii has longitudinal rugae on the plurae and a soft margin between hairs and smooth propodeal face (palustris has a very hard, well-defined margin)." I was a little confused as to what "plurae" meant but I believe this refers to the lateral sides of the mesosoma.

Original ID: atratus; Actual ID: marginatus

says Scott: "ID based on erect hairs on gaster, distinct spines on petiole and postpetiole (postpetiole spines larger than those on petiole), and distinct median spines on large pronotal spines (small median denticels or absent in atratus). Overall this specimen differs significantly from any of the atratus I have seen and I am confident that it is marginatus." In going over the rest of my atratus specimens I found that it was difficult for me to tell the difference between the median spines on the pronotal spines in atratus and marginatus. Many of the atratus spines seemed quite distinct. However, the other two characteristics were easy to distinguish.

Original ID: inaequalis; Actual ID: laminatus (soldier)

Scott says: "Frontal carinae do not pass posterior border of eyes, are slightly upturned laterally, and strongly converge towards the mandibles. These characters differentiate the soldier of this species from that of C. inaequalis."

Original ID: C. bohlsi; Actual ID: manni

Scott says: "I ID this species as C. manii. This specimen has very broad petiole spines that are much broader than the postpetiole. By comparison C. bohlsi has short rounded spines on the petiole." Looking back at the key, these two are completely different. Not sure what I was thinking.

Original ID: cordiventris; Actual ID: ramiphilus

Scott says: "Clearest characters separating this from C. cordiventris are the rounder pronotal projections and the shorter propodeal spines."

Original ID: unknown; Actual ID: C. pallidus (I think!)

Scott says: "This is a strange specimen. It appears to be a soldier that is incompletely differentiated. Put another way, it is clearly a soldier, but many of the characters are weakly formed and are somewhat intermediate between worker and soldier. Still, it is definitely a species from the pallens clade, and I am fairly sure it is C. pallidus, particularly when trying to interpolate between worker and soldier characters." I had originally identified this specimen as pallidus, but then decided it couldn't possibly be pallidus, and changed it to unknown. I am pleased to see that I was originally correct and also that I wasn't crazy to be hesitant in calling it pallidus.

Original ID: unknown; Actual ID: Near C. maculatus?

Scott says: "I ID this specimen to the pinelii clade but it does not appear to match any of the known species. It seems closest to C. maculatus, but it differs in a number of important ways, including very different sculpturing on the cephalic disc. and different spines/expansions on the petiole and postpetiole. New species?"

Original ID: unknown; Actual ID: Near C. palta?

Scott says: "I have to say that I can't get to a species for this either. I get to C. palta but it does not seem to be this speices. Ruling out an error on my part, this could also be a new species."

Original ID: unknown and conspersus; Actual ID: peruviensis

Scott says: "I ID both of these specimens as C. peruviensis (despite some size variation). I am quite confident of this ID, but then again, C. peruviensis is only known from a single specimen, so without comparing them side by side there is the chance that your specimens represent and new species very closely related (sister?) to C. peruviensis. The key characters in the ID are the very unusual morphology of the postpetiole spines, the flat depressed hairs over the mesosoma and head, and the ring of erect hairs around the frontal carinae. For these reasons I am confident that 2605152 is not C. conspersus."

Some other cephalotes resources:

Costa Rica guide to Cephalotes
pretty pictures
gliding ants
Discoverlife list of species
hymenoptera name server with original description, synonyms, etc.
antfarm discussion forum
tree of life -- Cephalotini
Another Costa Rica guide
Article on microorganisms in their gut
nesting habits and occurrence in animal carcass

The taxonomic impediment

I just found a very interesting report on the economics of taxonomic services and "the taxonomic impediment." It was written by the Association of Systematics Collections (ASC) Executive Director K. Elaine Hoagland in response to a public call in the U.S.A. for a solution to the lack of adequate taxonomic resources for country-studies and other work mandated by the Convention on Biodiversity. It addresses some of the issues I mentioned in an earlier post and even recommends some solutions:

"Growing out of a tradition of reciprocity and collegiality, taxonomists frequently do not charge clients directly for their specialized services and products, such as identifications and biodiversity databases, even though the users of these services and products now extend far beyond their fellow taxonomists. These service activities are often ancillary to a taxonomist's basic monographic work, for which he or she receive grant funds, or subsidizes on his own or through his employers. The cost of doing taxonomy is not factored into most biodiversity or ecology projects. Research grants (even in taxonomy) and ecological monitoring activities rarely include funds for the curation and care of voucher specimens, or the establishment and maintenance of museums."

"The result is a classic market failure in which the cost of taxonomy is externalized. Employers are unwilling to hire persons who do not bring in financial resources. In business terms, taxonomists are a net financial drain (opportunity cost) on the organization. Students shy away from the field of systematics in favor of fields that offer more fellowships, grants, and jobs. Courses in taxonomy are therefore under-subscribed, giving universities further incentive to cut faculty positions. The few remaining taxonomists are over-worked and burdened by new tasks, including now being asked to computerize millions of specimen records going back 200 years. At many institutions, taxonomists willingly stay on beyond retirement, doing work that could go to newly-trained individuals, and positions are not filled. Although there is keen interest in taxonomy in many developing countries, there too, emphasis is on areas of science that bring direct financial reward."

Recommendations include:

"Using existing organizational resources such as the Association of Systematics Collections, Systematics Agenda 2000, and/or ETI, taxonomists could work towards the establishment of a Taxasphere -- a network of taxonomists who can be called upon to perform taxonomic research and services in support of biodiversity inventory and management worldwide. The Taxasphere could make use of various databases of taxonomic expertise that are now being developed in several countries. It could be a clearinghouse for requests for taxonomic services and opportunities for funding. It could align research priorities with funding opportunities, and identify training needs based on real jobs and funded programs. Models for the Taxasphere exist. One very good one is ABRS of Australia, which helps set priorities by focusing attention on needed taxonomic work, helping to arrange training when needed, and funding research and publications on a modest scale. Another model is more international although taxonomically narrow: having recognized a problem in the disappearance of frogs and other amphibians, an international group of herpetologists established a clearinghouse for information and opportunities to research that problem. Foundation support has lead to funding of pilot studies and communications among researchers. The Taxasphere would be a larger project, but is conceptually similar. It would be internet-based and minimally bureaucratic."

"Institutions housing systematics resources should develop business plans that bring taxonomic services into the market, and explicitly show how taxonomic infrastructure is supported, as appropriate to the mission and needs of the institution and its clients and funders, including those representing the long-term public interest. Institutional leaders should review internal budgeting and public relations procedures to demonstrate the value that is produced by taxonomic research and resources both within the institution and via collegial exchange of services and information. They should help the staff develop a new outlook on their own value and potential as the economic paradigm shifts to one of taxonomy (including basic research) as a valued commodity. Grant applications, collaborative research projects, and contracts should include direct or reciprocal compensation for measurable taxonomic services such as identifications and curation of voucher specimens. Institutions should educate trustees, donors, government sponsors, and taxpayers that the "public good" of taxonomic services is spread widely across society and hence justifies core funding of research infrastructure and basic research as a social benefit."

Read the entire report here.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

More ant blogs

I recently discovered several new blogs devoted to ant-y things and thought i would share them.

First is which is connected to antbase but apparently only has 2 posts as of this moment. I hope that changes soon because I enjoyed the two posts that were there.

From there I found biosyscontent and biodivcontext which are both written by Donat Agosti (the antbase blog is written by Donat and Roberto Keller). Both are still fairly sparse in entries, but hopefully that will change soon. I am a little unclear about the exact focus of both of these blogs -- he could really use some sort of subheading underneath the titles, but they are both clearly ant-aligned and interesting. It is nice to get some viewpoints from a senior myrmecologist who I assume has a lot more information on what's going on behind the scenes in the ant world. I myself have no idea what is going on. It is also nice to hear somebody willing to state a controversial position or bring to light a controversy. I'm not sure why. Maybe I just want to beef up on my myrmecological gossip. Or maybe it is just nice to have these controversies acknowledged publicly, like a dysfunctional family that can no longer ignore their issues. And hey, if people don't agree with what he is saying, start your own blog! In truth, I am somewhat astonished at the paucity of ant-related blogs. Sadly, I believe it is due mostly to the aging myrmecological community. I support any new ant content on the internet.

Anyway, I was then directed towards SemAnt and IPhylo, written by Roderic Page. These blogs seem to be more focused on computer interfaces to search or organize taxonomic data. Very interesting stuff.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The economics of ants

Let's talk about ebay some more. You can buy a lot of mounted specimens of butterflies, beetles, spiders, moths, even centipedes, but you almost never see ants for sale, unless they are in amber. Why is that? I get that they are just not as colorful or large as other insects and so don't appear to be as spectacular (although of course we know they are most definitely spectacular!), so I can see why people who like to collect pretty things wouldn't be interested, but what about myrmecologists? If I collected some spectacular ant -- let's say a Thaumatomyrmex -- wouldn't some ant geek (like me) be willing to put out some cash to own one? To be able to look at it under their own microscope, add it to their collection, show it off to friends? Leaving aside any ethical considerations about whether it should be in a museum or whatever. I just don't get why there is no market for that sort of thing. Does anybody have any thoughts? I would really like to know.

The other thing I don't get is the whole economics of ant taxonomy. It seems to be a fact that there is a lack of ant taxonomists. It also seems to be a fact that there is plenty of work for ant taxonomists to do. Talk to any myrmecologists and I suspect they all have boxes and boxes of specimens that they need to get to that may never see the light of day. The Harvard Ant Room certainly does. And there is still a ton of revisions that need to be done, descriptions that need to be written, phylogenies that need to be worked out. And very few people to do them all. Right at this moment, I would love to find someone to help me sort, pin, identify my ants -- but there's nobody. Anyone with the skills and/or interest is already doing it and busy with their own work. All of that would seem to indicate that there would be a market for ant taxonomists but somehow it doesn't work out that way. The job market is, as far as I can tell, miniscule, and not getting any larger. And so there is no incentive whatsoever for anyone to become an ant taxonomist. I'm not really sure what the answer to this problem is, but I find it quite perplexing and frustrating. And depressing.

This photo is from the Ant Course 2002 (my year). How many of these people will actually become taxonomists?

Entomology collection for sale

Speaking of ebay, I came across this auction the other day for a "very large entomology program / collection." Wow. Not just specimens, but cabinets, drawers, mounting supplies, books, display cases, magnifiers, etc. etc. No mention of ants. I wonder what the story behind this is? It's hard to imagine someone spending all that time and effort to amass such a collection and then trying to sell it. I considered bidding for about a second before I realized thast I had no room, no money, and no need for most of that stuff. I sure could use some cabinets, though. Right now all my specimens are in drawers piled on top of each other. Every time I need to get at something at the bottom of the pile, I have to pick each drawer up very carefully and place it on another pile of drawers so I can get at the bottom one. It gets a little tedious. Anyway, if you've got $30,000 and some space to fill, check it out.

Friday, August 18, 2006

New species found on ebay

Okay, not a new ant species, but still crazy: According to New Scientist, a new species of sea urchin -- Coelopleurus exquisitus -- was recently described after London's Natural History Museim scientist Simon Coppard was repeatedly asked to identify specimens purchased on ebay. He and a colleague -- Heinke Schultze -- discovered it was unknown to science and published their description in Zootaxa. According to BoingBoing there is even a specimen up for auction on ebay right now, although it says it says it is Coelopleurus interruptus. It is very pretty. I wonder what the state of ant taxonomy would be like if ants were sold on ebay.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Standard Methods for Measuring and Monitoring Biodiversity

I just discovered that the book Ants: Standard Methods for Measuring and Monitoring Biodiversity by Agosti et al. is now available online. This is fabulous.

On the other hand, there were several presentations at the recent IUSSI meeting which seemed to call into question the standardized protocol recommended in the book. So maybe it won't be so useful soon.

Progress Report

Stuff I have been doing --

  1. I was able to get a copy of the new Wasmannia Key, which rocks and which I cannot wait to use.
  2. I was able to send emails to a bunch of the people I wanted to in order to hopefully remind them that I am still hoping to see my specimens soon. Not sure how successful I was, but at least I tried. Most of them are at the Ant Course in Australia at the moment, so perhaps when they get back.
  3. I was going to take a look at my Aztecas but instead ended up cleaning and reorganizing the lab, which was a very good thing.
  4. Most importantly, I finished my probe paper. Yay! So now I can get back to actually looking at ants again. Huzzah!

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Organizing the Ant Internet

This is what I am thinking about today -- I have this organization thing. I have a very strong need to have things in my life organized. A big pile of papers and junk drives me crazy. I just want to go through them all and put them into categories and file them away or throw away the trash and make everything look nice and neat. I get this feeling sometimes when I am browsing through the internet and looking at ant sites. I want to take them all off the web, look at them, clean them up a bit, throw away the junk, and put them all together in one well-organized drawer. There are so many ant sites nowadays and each and everyone seems to want to have everything you could ever want from an ant site, but none of them do. And I just think, if they could all get together, you really would have the best ant site ever. I'm not really sure why they don't. Even just a little bit of information sharing would be helpful. For instance, you've got AntWeb, which is a fabulous website if you are hoping to look up ants from Madagascar, but not if you are hoping to look up ants from Costa Rica. Why is that? The ants of Costa Rica have a fabulous webpage. It doesn't seem like it would be that difficult to import all of those costa rican ants onto AntWeb. DiscoverLife has done it. They don't have any checklists from Australia or Japan, though, which are also two groups of ant fauna with great webpages. Shouldn't we be trying to incorporate all of this information together? Even just a link to the other websites would be nice. It took me forever to figure out where the good websites were. I don't even trust the lists that are on DiscoverLife now -- I have a list of Tiputini ants on Discoverlife -- it is terribly out of date and I can't figure out how to update the list so I've just let it go. Tree of Life is another webpage that is basically useless to me. There are these beautiful photos but when you get down to the species level, you get a statement like "127 described species" but no actual list of species. Pseudomyrmex, for instance, has no species list on the Tree of Life website. Why not? A list certainly exists. And there are even labs that have been looking at this genus for years. Cephalotes, Procryptocerus, the Attini, Megalomyrmex, Pheidole, and Dolichoderus -- all genera that have no list of species on their tree of life webpage. Why hasn't someone added more ant information to this website? Or other websites? It is very frustrating to me. I wish someone would put me in charge of making one fantastic ant webpage that would incorporate everything. I know it would drive me insane but it would be very satisfying work.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Another Identification Tutor and Some Other Cool Sites

I received an email from Christiana Klingenberg from the State Museum of Natural History in Karlsruhe, Germany. She said she liked my ant quiz and pointed me to another similar quiz located at Actually they call it an Identification Tutor, which sounds a lot better and may even be more accurate. Maybe I'll start calling mine an identification tutor, as well. Some of the pictures are a little hard to see, but it still works pretty well. And they have a lot more pictures than I do (at the moment anyway). So check it out. It can be found on the site, which looks like a really nice resource, especially if you are interested in ants from Germany, Malaysia, or Mongolia -- kind of a bizarre trifecta. I keep finding these very nice websites with all sorts of cool features I would like to include on my website, but don't have the time to do. For instance, Jochen Bihn's website on the ant fauna of Cachoeira Nature Reserve has a really cool RSS feed from uBioRSS that lets you display news and journal articles on specific taxa. I would love to put that up on my website but I can't figure the thing out.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Things I should have been doing today instead of making an ant quiz

  1. Emailing Jack Longino and asking him for a copy of his new Wasmannia key. I talked with him at the IUSSI conference and he said he would be happy to.
  2. Identifying my Wasmannia once I get the key.
  3. Taking a look at all of my Aztecas. I also met with Stephanie Johnson (University of Maryland) at the conference. She said she would look at my Azteca, which is awesome, but first I need to figure out how many I have, figure out what I have in alcohol, and then see if she still really wants to look at them when she realizes that I have ten billion workers and not a reproductive in sight. I don't know about her, b ut they all look the same to me.
  4. Looking into getting a work study student or somebody to sort out all my ants in alcohol. I have a lot of folks wanting DNA samples of my ants, but most of my ants from the canopy and the winklers are just sitting in alcohol mixed together. I get panic attacks just thinking about it.
  5. Finishing my probe paper.
  6. Bugging Stefan about the Solenopsis, which he has had for some time now and hopefully will be done with soon.
  7. Bugging Ted Schultz about the Attine ants, which I gave him awhile ago.
  8. Bugging Shawn Dash about the Hypoponera he has had for some time -- actually I just got an email from him saying he was almost done. So Shawn rocks.
  9. Bugging Scott Powell about the Cephalotes I gave him at the conference. Hopefully he will be able to look at them quickly.
  10. Bugging Brian Fisher about the single Amblyopone specimen I gave him awhile ago.
  11. Emailing John Lattke and see if I can get a copy of his new Gnamptogenys key.
I'm sure there's more. That's just off the top of my head. I'll get right on those things tomorrow.

Ant Quiz

So.. what the hell is wrong with me? I have ten thousand things to do and what did I spend today doing? Making an ant quiz. Check it out. I wish I had all the time in the world. I would make the rockin'est ant quiz in the world.


In an earlier post I talked about the IBISCA project. What struck me most was the incredibly unequal distribution of resources devoted to the different layers of the rainforest. IBISCA stands for Investigating the BIodiversity of Soil and Canopy Arthropods, which would seem to indicate that they were equally as interested in collecting soil ants as canopy ants. And they were putting immense resources into collecting the canopy ants -- helium balloons and canopy rafts and giant cranes, for example. But as far as I could tell the only way they were collecting soil ants was pitfalls and winklers, which mostly just collect leaf litter ants. Maybe that's what they meant by soil ants -- they just thought IBISCA sounded better than IBILLCA. Anyway, at the IUSSI conference Maurice Leponce was there to talk about ants and their role in international environmental projects, and he presented some results from the IBISCA project. And I was able to ask him why there was such an unequal distribution of resources. At least that was what I was trying to ask. It may have ended up sounding like an advertisement for my subterranean probe, which it really wasn't. I just wanted to point out the inequality. Mostly I think he just said that they didn't have any good methods for the soil ants, so they didn't do them. Which of course makes sense and is perfectly reasonable, but I still maintain that people just aren't putting the effort or the money or the resources into looking for better methods. I mean, I can't even imagine the money and effort that must have gone into bringing a giant crane into the middle of the rainforest. People have even trained monkeys to collect for them in the canopy. But the best we can do with soil ants is dig up the dirt? It seems a little pathetic.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

2006 IUSSI Congress in DC

Oh my goodness.... so much has happened and I have so much to say. The IUSSI congress was great, although DC was ridiculously hot. I presented my poster, which seemed to go over well. I had a lot of very excited folks wanting me to make them probes, which I really don't have the ability to do right now. I did, however, make a Do-It-Yourself web page with pictures and information on how to make your own probes, which I hope will be useful. I also put up more data from the probe experiment in case anyone wants to see that. What I really need to be doing right now is trying to finish that paper and get it published somewhere ASAP. That's next on my list after this.

The seminars I enjoyed the most were:

Symposium 12: Ant phylogenetics: new molecular trees to address old problems in ant biology
Symposium 14: Ant communities and biodiversity: global assessments and monitoring

The ant phylogenetics were quite interesting. The idea that subterranean ants are the most ancient group (as I have quoted in my poster) was called into question, which is too bad. I also liked the study on Pachycondyla which seems to show quite conclusively that they are not monophyletic and should almost certainly be divided into more than one genus. I'm sure someone is getting right on that.

I got to meet a bunch of ant folks, which was nice. And I got to visit the Smithsonian collection, which was also great. The comparison between that and the Harvard ant room is amazing. The Smithsonian ant room is large, brightly lit, climate controlled, with multiple rooms and offices for students and researchers, lots of equipment, and electronically controlled rolling stacks. In comparison, Harvard's room seems ancient, dingy and forgotten. There is not enough space for all the ants, there is a sad little window air conditioner, and barely enough room for more than a couple of people to do anything useful at the same time. And yet my understanding is that the Harvard collection is superior in terms of the actual specimens. I really don't understand why Harvard, which has more money than they know what to do with, is allowing the world's premier ant collection to stagnate. It's a crime. Anyway, visiting the Smithsonian was awesome. Maybe I can work there one day.

I also listened to EO Wilson's talk on the evolution of eusociality, which still seems a bit wonky to me but he did give my favorite quote of the congress, which was: "a scientist would rather use another scientist's toothbrush than his vocabulary." I think it depends on the scientist.

By Friday I was so overwhelmed with everything that I couldn't listen to one more talk so I skipped out and went to visit the baby panda, whose name is Tai Shan, but who I am told is called Butterstick by the locals. Adorable!