Friday, April 27, 2007

Order Of The Science Scouts Of Exemplary Repute And Above Average Physique

I was pointed to this site by BoingBoing this morning and have now wasted way too much time poring over their science merit badges. I must now declare the badges for which I qualify for:

The "I blog about science" badge. In which the recipient maintains a blog where at least a quarter of the material is about science. Suffice to say, this does not include scientology

The "talking science" badge. Required for all members. Assumes the recipient conducts himself/herself in such a manner as to talk science whenever he/she gets the chance. Not easily fazed by looks of disinterest from friends or the act of "zoning out" by well intentioned loved ones

The "inordinately fond of invertebrate" badge. In which the recipient professes an arguably unhealthy affinity for things of this category.

Clearly, I deserve this badge, but why the squid? There needs to be an insect version.

The "respect me - I've published at an upper tier publication for popular science readership" badge. In which the recipient has works in print at publications with circulations of 50,000 or higher.

Well, I don't know what the circulation of Naturwissenschaften is, but I'm pretty sure I qualify.

The "have used a dental drill and I've never been a dentist" badge. We're not sure if this is a specialist badge. We do hope so, though.

Okay, I haven't used a dental drill, but I have used a DeWalt 2-1/2" 24V cordless drill/hammerdrill with a 24" long auger drill bit attachment. That's gotta count for something, right?

The "inappropriate nocturnal use of lab equipment in the name of alternative science experimentation / communication" badge. In which the recipient has "borrowed" scientific supplies for the sake of stealth scientific communication.

'nuff said.

The "experienced with electrical shock" badge (LEVEL III). In which the recipient has had experience with the electrical shocking of himself/herself.

Not fun. I once electrocuted myself (accidentally) while working on a black-footed ferret reintroduction program in South Dakota. We set up large areas protected by electric fencing to keep out coyotes and one day I just barely brushed the fence with a finger. Next thing I knew I was lying flat out on the ground staring up at the sky.

The "arts and crafts" badge. Because you can't have a bunch of badges without an arts and crafts badge. This one assumes the recipient has all manner of "craftiness" with a sciencegeek twist.

I offer as proof, The Gigantiops Destructor Store.

The "has frozen stuff just to see what happens" badge (LEVEL II). In which the recipient has frozen something in dry ice for the sake of scientific curiosity.

Well, who hasn't?

The "I may look like a scientist but I'm actually also a ninja" badge. Lethal when in combination with the "destroyer of quackery" badge.

Here is my proof.

The "dodger of monkey shit" badge. One of our self explanatory badges.

Let's just say Tiputini has a lot of monkeys.

Link for explanations, more badges, and a place to suggest merit badges of your own!

No access to my own article

So here's the funny thing about my Naturwissenschaften article: I got an email from Springer yesterday telling me that my article had been published online and giving me a link to the article. But my school doesn't actually get Naturwissenschaften, so the link takes me to a page that tells me I don't have access to the article (or the issue) but can purchase it for $32.00 if I want. Crazy, right? My husband, who is a grad student at a different school (with access), actually had to download the PDF and email it to me. Not only does BU not have online access to Naturwissenschaften, it doesn't even carry it! Sigh.

The Ant Room featured in BU Today

There is a small article today on the BU Today website about my blog. I am feeling so popular of late.


Thursday, April 26, 2007

Biodiversity below ground: probing the subterranean ant fauna of Amazonia

Announcing my very first published journal article:

Biodiversity below ground: probing the subterranean ant fauna of Amazonia

Kari T. Ryder Wilkie1 , Amy L. Mertl1 and James F. A. Traniello1
(1) Department of Biology, Boston University, 5 Cummington Street, Boston, MA 02215, USA

Received: 8 January 2007 Revised: 29 March 2007 Accepted: 7 April 2007 Published online: 25 April 2007

Abstract Ants are abundant, diverse, and ecologically dominant in tropical forests. Subterranean ants in particular are thought to have a significant environmental impact, although difficulties associated with collecting ants underground and examining their ecology and behavior have limited research. In this paper, we present the results of a study of subterranean ant diversity in Amazonian Ecuador that employs a novel probe to facilitate the discovery of species inhabiting the soil horizon. Forty-seven species of ants in 19 genera, including new and apparently rare species, were collected in probes. Approximately 19% of the species collected at different depths in the soil were unique to probe samples. Analysis of similarity (ANOSIM) results showed that the species composition of ants collected with the probe was significantly different from samples collected using other techniques. Additionally, ANOSIM computations indicated the species assemblage of ants collected 12.5 cm below the surface was significantly different from those found at 25, 37.5, and 50 cm. Ant diversity and species accumulation rates decreased with increasing depth. There were no species unique to the lowest depths, suggesting that subterranean ants may not be distributed deep in the soil in Amazonia due to the high water table. The technique we describe could be used to gain new insights into the distribution and biology of subterranean ant species and other members of the species-rich soil invertebrate macrofauna.

Link to Naturwissenschaften article
Link to webpage showing how to make your own subterranean probe
If anyone doesn't have access to Naturwissenschaften, send me an email and I would be happy to send you a copy.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Biodiversity researchers try to bury the hatchet over barcoding

From the latest Nature:

Projects that explore the world's biodiversity might seem like natural allies. But last week a workshop was held in North Carolina expressly to mend fences between two such initiatives that have different approaches.

Both projects use genetics to catalogue the relationships between organisms. The Assembling the Tree of Life project, funded by the US National Science Foundation, explores the evolutionary relationships between different classes of organisms. And the Consortium for the Barcode of Life initiative, funded largely by private foundations, uses short DNA signatures to discriminate between species.

Some systematists, such as those in the Tree of Life project, think that the upstart barcoding approach ignores crucial information that helps to define organisms, such as their habitats and their relationships with other species. As a result, the two groups tend to regard each other with more scepticism than friendliness.

The workshop, which was held on 19–20 April and attended by about 40 scientists from both communities, was intended "to build bridges", says co-organizer Joel Cracraft, an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

For some, the occasion was a milestone. "This really is a signal that a lot of the hostility about barcoding has died down and disappeared," says David Schindel, executive secretary of the Barcode of Life project.

But others remain more reserved. "I still have some scepticism about barcoding, depending on what its goals are," says Cracraft.

Proponents of barcoding have encountered particularly tough resistance to the idea that the technology will help the world to catalogue its fast-disappearing biodiversity, by quickly identifying new species based on DNA differences from known species. Systematists scoff at this idea and say that because species have varying levels of genetic diversity, setting a uniform cut-off for how much diversity distinguishes a new species is tough.

But barcoders have now published research showing that their approach can work in some contexts (K. C. R. Kerr et al. Molecular Ecology Notes doi:10.1111/j.1471-8286.2007.01670.x; 2007). And systematists have decided to try to find common focus with barcoders, rather than turning up their nose at the entire enterprise.

The meeting's organizers hope that these connections will ultimately lead to collaborations. But for now, they say, just getting the scientists to talk to each other is a good first step.


Thursday, April 19, 2007

E.O. Wilson out-charisma'd Bill Clinton

I just saw this article from the Wired Blog Network entitled: "Bill Clinton out-charisma'd at the TED Prizes."

This may say something about TED, or it may say something about the nature of presidential power (or rather the lack of it), but tonight was the first time I have ever seen Bill Clinton be the least charismatic person in a series of speakers.

The evening session’s theme was “I Have a Dream,” and TED curator Chris Anderson called it “the most important session of the conference,” as it was when the three winners of the TED Prizes would unveil the “wish” that each of them hoped to accomplish with the prize. (One of last year’s prizes led to today’s unveiling of the Open Architecture Network.)

First up was photojournalist James Nachtwey, who displayed a riveting series of photographs of human misery. He described documentary photography as “a kind of intervention” in the face of poor political judgment and political inaction -- as a way to give voice to ordinary people around the world. (Example: “A photo that showed the true face of war would almost by definition be an antiwar photograph,” Nachtwey said.) The nature of Nachtwey’s job made his wish a bit cryptic: “There’s a vital story that needs to be told, and I wish for TED to help me gain access to it, and then help me come up with innovative and exciting ways to use news photography in the digital era.”

Biologist E.O. Wilson followed Nachtwey by saying that he came on behalf of “insects and other small creatures,” to “make a plea for them.” Wilson’s wish: “I wish that we will work together to help to create the key tool we need to inspire preservation of earth’s biodiversity: The Encyclopedia of Life.” As I understand it, this would be a biological Super-Wikipedia, a collaborative project among scientists and amateurs that would contain information about all life on the planet.

“We live on a mostly unexplored planet,” Wilson emphasized. Recent years have seen the discovery of two new kinds of whales, a new kind of elephant, a distinct new kind of gorilla, and more. And on the microscopic (and smaller) scale, the earth is filled with the “dark matter of the biological world,” the bacteria, which are only beginning to be discovered.

“Our lives depend upon these creatures,” Wilson said. He estimated that 500 species of friendly bacteria live symbiotically with us in our mouths and throats, and that they probably fend of pathogenic bacteria. When it comes to species discovery, “Scientists are like explorers in a rowboat launched onto the Pacific Ocean.” (Wilson also allowed that he believes “true aliens,” creatures from outer space, might live among us on earth in the form of a bacterial species, which would have had billions of years to arrive.)

The “human juggernaut” is destroying the earth’s biodiversity, Wilson said, through habitat destruction (“including climate change”); the spread of invasive species, such as pathogenic bacteria and viruses, into every country; pollution; population expansion; and overharvesting, driving species into extinction through over-hunting and –fishing. (Wilson used the opening letter of each of these elements to create the acronym “HIPPO.”) Previous cataclysms of this sort, Wilson said, such as “the last one that ended the age of dinosaurs, took 5 to 10 million years to repair.”

In order to prevent catastrophe, Wilson said, “we need to have the biosphere properly explored.” He called for “a biological moon shot,” a project on the scale of the mapping of the human genome to map and discover the biological code of all of the life on the planet. The project, he said, could transform the science of biology and inspire a new generation of biologists to continue the quest that started for him 60 years ago: “to search for life, to understand it, and finally, above all, to preserve it.”

Chris Anderson took the stage and linked Wilson’s project with Nachtwey’s: As Nachtwey’s work has shown, Anderson said, to make victims visible will make the world more responsive to their fate.

Then Bill Clinton came and said something about health care in Rwanda. Yes, I know it’s important. But it was like listening to a State of the Union address after hearing a Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

I saw Clinton speak in person on a few occasions as president, and his head seemingly shone. Today, he stood in others’ halos.

All of the TED speeches are available to view online so you can see for yourself. These include videos from past winners and runners-up, as well. Some folks I'd like to check out: Richard Dawkins, Jane Goodall, James Watson, Al Gore, Tony Robbins, Dan Gilbert, Al Seckel, Craig Ventner, Michael Shermer.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


Last week I worked on my Myrmelachista. And let me tell you, those suckers are terrible! At first I was very excited because there is a nice revision with key available for the Myrmelachista of Costa Rica. In fact, I was a little puzzled as to why I had left this genus alone for so long when there was such a nice key available. Then I realized that it was published in 2006 and it had been so long since I had first gone through my collection that someone had published a key in the meantime. Which makes me feel like I have been in grad school way too long. But anyway, I digress. So it's a great key.... if your ants are from Costa Rica. Not so great for me. Most of my ants have 10-segmented antennae, and there appear to be only two ants in Costa Rica with 10-segmented antennae, and neither one looks like any of mine. And none of the 9-segmented ants seem right, either. So.... I'm kind of on my own here. After much thought and consideration, I have come up with 9 morphospecies from 43 specimens. Two were collected with bait, one was hand collected from a nest in a twig, and one was hand collected from a live tree stem (this last one includes queens). The rest were all collected from canopy fogging.

My new updated Myrmelachista page can be found here.
A key to my Myrmelachista can be found here.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Octostruma II

I have finished updating my Octostruma page with photos, descriptions, etc. I have 7 morphospecies and one named species. After studying the Ants of Costa Rica Octostruma page, I decided that one of my specimens was iheringi, even though it has no setae on the head (see photo). It is just too similar otherwise, down to the "long, fine, flexuous seta projecting laterally from near spiracle on peduncle of petiole." KTRW-002 through 005 are all represented by one or two specimens each and are all much larger than the other specimens. KTRW-006 through 008 may coincide with Jack's balzani complex.

Come take a look at the Octostruma of Tiputini.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Octostruma -- using photos to sort to morphospecies

Last week I tackled the genera Octostruma and Eurhopalothrix. Originally I had three specimens of Eurhopalothrix and 51 specimens of Octostruma. I rechecked them all and decided that they were all Octostruma. So... how to identify Octostruma species? Brown and Kempf (1960) have a key, but it seems to be extremely out of date. Longino has a key to Costa Rican species on his website, but most of them are morphospecies. I decided to try something I've always thought about doing, but never really had the ability to do until now. I used my nifty little microscope camera to take quick and dirty photos of all of my Octostruma specimens (head, lateral, and gaster), and try to use these photos to help me with my sort.

I decided not to look at the reproductives and ended up with 3 photos each of 36 specimens. This took a couple of hours. Then I started to look at the photos. I pulled up all of one kind of photo (for instance, all of the head shots) into photoshop and tiled all the photos so I can see all of them at once. Photoshop has a nice feature that allows you to change the zoom and location of one photo, and then press a button and it will automatically change all of the opened windows to match the zoom and location of that one. At first, I was very disappointed as the photos are pretty blurry and it seems difficult for me to get anything useful out of them. But after awhile I started to see some patterns that are very obvious to me because I can see all of the specimens at once. I was able to pull out a couple of specimens that were clearly distinct from all of the other ones. One has face sculpture that is longitudinally rugose whereas all the other ones have faces that are more clearly punctate. One has a ton of hairs on its thorax whereas all the other ones have between zero and four. And there are a couple of specimens that are clearly larger than others. I was able to move the photos around to group them with like photos and test out my ideas of what may be important. I ended up with eight morphospecies (not counting reproductives) which I am pretty happy with. I was even able to put a name on one of them.

I will post the descriptions soon, but wanted to get this entry out. I found the whole process to be much less frustrating than the way I usually do it, which is to look at one specimen at a time and constantly go back and forth to check and recheck characters between specimens. I just find it difficult to keep those images in my head for very long. Being able to see them all at once made a huge difference to me. Obviously, you still have to look at the specimens in the microscope to verify things, but overall I was very happy with my little experiment.

Update: I have posted some of the photos I used, if anyone would like to see them.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Ants in Second Life

From New World Notes, a blog about Second Life:

"Alert E.O. Wilson: Tectonic Nabob has created a new species of ants programmed to seek out and find food, and what's more, to recruit other ants to gather and return it to the nest. His marvelous narrated video shows how: Tectonic's ants leave a pheromone trail in their random wanderings, and once they locate food, go into a Recruit mode, and search for nearby ants, so they can be set onto the food finder's successful pheromone path. (To prevent all the crisscrossing trails from causing a pile-up of legs and antennae, Tectonic has programmed the pheromones to decay in potency over time.)"

"The behavior is arguably emergent," says Tectonic Nabob, "because the ants only interact locally and follow local state-based rules, yet they end up working together to harvest food. In general, emergence is when complex global behavior arises from simple, local rules, and this simulation has some of those properties."
The entry also mentions the Ecosystem Working Group, which is striving to populate this simulated world with non-player, animal characters that operate on their own and interact naturally with each other. Some of them have even been programmed to evolve in response to changes in their environment. Very interesting stuff. Check it out.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007


I am delving back into microscope work again and (again) I find myself very frustrated with my microscope. I am wondering what other people out there use or would like to use if given the chance. I sometimes feel like there is a missing microscope category between compound microscopes and dissecting microscopes that would be perfect for ant identifications.

Update: I have a very nice Wild M5 microscope -- the kind with the cool bullet travel case. And I use 20x Wild eyepieces. So it's a nice microscope but it isn't really good enough to see details on the smaller ants. For instance, I am looking at Octostruma and Eurhopalothrix right now and I'm a little iffy on the number of antennal segments, which is apparently key.

Photo: Charles Darwin's microscope, made by James Smith in 1846. Image © the Whipple Museum (Wh.3788).

Carebarella -- Did you mean barbarella?

I have about a dozen pinned carebarella specimens and I thought I would give identifying them a try. Originally I thought that they must be bicolor, as this seems to be the most common species and my specimens look just like the pictures on the Costa Rica webpage. However, as I began to research the literature, I realized that it would not be that easy.

Apparently, there are only three valid species of Carebarella: C. bicolor, C. alvarengai, and C. condei. With only three species, you would think that IDs would be easy, but you would be wrong. As far as I can tell, there hasn't been a single paper written about this genus since the original descriptions:

  • C. bicolor -- Emery, C. 1906. Studi sulle formiche della fauna Neotropica. Bollettino della Societa Entomologica Italiana 37: 107-194. Browse
  • C. alvarengai -- Borgmeier, T. 1937. Formigas novas ou pouco conhecidas da America do Sul e Central, principalmente do Brasil (Hym. Formicidae). Archivos do Instituto de Biologia Vegetal. Rio de Janeiro 3: 217-255. Browse or download entire file (5.9M)
  • C. condei -- Kempf, W. W. 1975. Miscellaneous studies on Neotropical ants. VI. (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Studia Entomologica (N.S.) 18: 341-380. Browse or download entire file (1.9M)
Furthermore, Kempf (1975) states that
"In genus Carebarella, we know the worker caste only for bicolor. In this species, we have records of workers from northern Argentina to Costa Rica, whereas of sexual forms the records are restricted to the Argentine, southern and eastern Brazil. It is possible that the workers from Suriname and Costa Rica associated with bicolor (Kempf, 1969: 281-282) rather belong to alvarengai than to the former, although I did not detect any noticeable difference between these and the southern specimens."
I take this to mean that nobody knows what the workers of alvarengai and condei look like, and there is some possibility that they might be indistinguishable from each other. As I have found no subsequent papers, I am under the impression that this is as things stand now.

Also, as far as I can tell, there are no records of Carebarella from Ecuador at all, so I don't even have a historical record to guide me.

So.... I think I will just call all of them Carebarella sp 1 and leave it at that.

Photo: Carebarella bicolor from Costa Rica. When I type in "Carebarella" into Google, it asks me, "Did you mean barbarella?" Awesome.