Thursday, May 31, 2007

Wood ants use resin to protect themselves against pathogens

From the Proceedings of the Royal Society B:

"Social life is generally associated with an increased exposure to pathogens and parasites, due to factors such as high population density, frequent physical contact and the use of perennial nest sites. However, sociality also permits the evolution of new collective behavioural defences. Wood ants, Formica paralugubris, commonly bring back pieces of solidified coniferous resin to their nest. Many birds and a few mammals also incorporate green plant material into their nests. Collecting plant material rich in volatile compounds might be an efficient way to fight bacteria and fungi. However, no study has demonstrated that this behaviour has a positive effect on survival. Here, we provide the first experimental evidence that animals using plant compounds with antibacterial and antifungal properties survive better when exposed to detrimental micro-organisms. The presence of resin strongly improves the survival of F. paralugubris adults and larvae exposed to the bacteria Pseudomonas fluorescens, and the survival of larvae exposed to the entomopathogenic fungus Metarhizium anisopliae. These results show that wood ants capitalize on the chemical defences which have evolved in plants to collectively protect themselves against pathogens."
Entire article is available online here.

Photo: the red wood ant Formica rufa. Image taken by Heath Cope and posted on

Friday, May 25, 2007

Tiputini Azteca

Azteca is one of my least favorite genera. Just because there are so many of them and differentiating them seems impossible. Aside from a few hand collected foragers, the vast majority of my Azteca specimens came from canopy fogging, which means a bunch of random workers and no associated queens. This is a huge problem because it seems that Azteca workers show a huge amount of size polymorphism, which means sorting them by workers is not ideal. Luckily for me, Stephanie Johnson over at the Smithsonian decided to work on a revision of Azteca, and sorted them to morphospecies for me. Later on, after doing sequencing and whatnot, she can hopefully put some names on them, too. Basically, she sorted the ants into 16 morphospecies of minors and 16 morphospecies of majors, but at the moment, she cannot say which majors match up to which minors. So there are at least 16 Azteca species at Tiputini. I won't list them here, as there are no actual names on them. But I will encourage anyone out there with preserved Azteca samples to contact Stephanie about contributing to her revision. If there was ever a genus in need of a revision, it is this one.

The updated Azteca page can be found here.

Photo: Azteca queen from Tiputini

Ant Texts at Internet Archive: a good resource

As I have been updating my web site and adding useful links to the genera pages, I have been finding more and more references to something called the Internet Archive:

"The Internet Archive is a non-profit organization dedicated to maintaining an on-line library and archive of Web and multimedia resources. Located at the Presidio in San Francisco, California, this archive includes "snapshots of the World Wide Web" (archived copies of pages, taken at various points in time), software, movies, books, and audio recordings. To ensure the stability and endurance of the archive, The Internet Archive is mirrored at Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt, the only library in the world with a mirror. The Internet Archive makes the collections available at no cost to researchers, historians, and scholars. The Internet Archive is a member of the American Library Association and is officially recognized by the State of California as a library."

There is a section specifically on Ant Texts, affiliated somehow with It has a nice interface that seems very user friendly, and appears to be very active with new texts appearing daily. Check it out here.

Tiputini Discothyrea

Next we have the diminutive and adorable Discothyrea, she of the disco ball-like antennae. Jeffrey Sosa-Calvo and John LaPolla are working on a world revision of Discothyrea and Jeffrey kindly identified my specimens into 4 species: Discothyrea denticulata, Discothyrea horni, Discothyrea JSC-001, and Discothyrea sexarticulata. With the exception of a single queen, every single specimen was collected with a Winkler.

My updated Discothyrea page can be found here

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Tiputini Pyramica and Strumigenys

Next up are the lovely Dacetine ants Pyramica and Strumigenys. I've always liked these buggers because they are so bizarre looking and fierce. I liked them even more when I realized that the key in Bolton was no longer correct and many genera such as Glamyromyrmex, Trichoscapa, Dorisidris, Smithistruma, Quadristruma, and Neostruma no longer existed and had been folded into one of the above two genera, which made my life a lot easier when sorting to genus. Sorting to species was a whole different thing, though, and I had a lot of trouble. I received a bunch of help from Minsheng Wang, who sorted all of my Dacetines into morphospecies, and then from Jeffrey Sosa-Calvo, who put names on them. The end result is: 12 Pyramica species and 10 Strumigenys species, plus 2 unidentified Strumigenys males:

Pyramica beebei
Pyramica decipula
Pyramica denticulata
Pyramica depressiceps
Pyramica eggersi
Pyramica epinotalis
Pyramica glenognatha
Pyramica metopia
Pyramica subedentata
Pyramica urrhobia
Pyramica villiersi
Pyramica zeteki
Strumigenys cosmostela
Strumigenys dolichognatha
Strumigenys incuba
Strumigenys perparva
Strumigenys precava
Strumigenys smithii
Strumigenys tococae
Strumigenys trinidadensis
Strumigenys trudifera
Strumigenys vilhenai

A few interesting collection notes:
  • The most common Dacetine species by far was P. denticulata, followed by P. eggersi and S. trudifera.
  • Strumigenys vilhenai specimens were all collected in the canopy.
  • Strumigenys trudifera specimens were all collected with Winklers.
  • Strumigenys trinidadensis specimens were collected equally from Winkler traps and canopy fogging.
  • A single specimen of Strumigenys tococae was collected from the canopy.
  • Strumigenys perparva specimens were all collected with Winklers.
  • Strumigenys cosmostela specimens were all collected from Winklers.
  • A single specimen of Strumigenys incuba was hand collected in the leaf litter.
  • All specimens of Pyramica beebei, Pyramica decipula, Pyramica subedentata, Pyramica urrhobia, Pyramica villiersi, and Pyramica zeteki were collected solely with Winklers.
  • Pyramica epinotalis specimens were all collected from the canopy.
  • Pyramica denticulata was collected using many different methods including Winkler traps, pitfall traps, and hand collecting.
  • Pyramica eggersi was also collected using several different methods including Winkler traps, canopy fogging, and hand collection.
  • A single specimen of Pyramica glenognatha was hand collected foraging.
I have updated the relevant pages on my website:

Tiputini Rogeria

I have been busily updating my database with the new identifications I have just received from Jeffrey Sosa-Calvo and Stephanie Johnson, and will try to summarize them here. I will start with Rogeria, a species I found extremely difficult to ID to species. After reviewing all of my specimens, Jeffrey was able to identify 10 species of Rogeria, plus a single unidentified male. They are:

Rogeria blanda
Rogeria ciliosa
Rogeria JSC-001
Rogeria JSC-002
Rogeria lirata
Rogeria micromma
Rogeria scobinata
Rogeria subarmata
Rogeria tonduzi
Rogeria unguispina

Some interesting collection notes:
  • unguispina specimens were all collected with Winklers
  • subarmata specimens were all collected from canopy fogging
  • scobinata was the most numerous and all but one specimen were collected with Winklers (the one specimen was hand collected)
  • blanda was the second most common species with almost all specimens collected from the canopy
  • all ciliosa specimens were collected in Winklers
  • all micromma specimens were collected in Winklers
I have updated this page on my site with the new names, as well as some useful links:


When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way!

From Ontogeny, I just saw the most incredible video entitled A Brawl in the Safari. Go watch it right now. It is very long but worth watching the entire thing.

Tiputini Army Ants

Just received my army ant specimens back from Gordon Snelling who has confirmed all of my IDs. I have updated the relevant web pages on my site. That leaves me with 8 army ant species collected at Tiputini.


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Darwin Correspondence Project: A cool resource

From the Darwin Correspondence Project:

"The main feature of the site is an online database with the complete, searchable, texts of around 5,000 letters written by and to Charles Darwin up to the year 1865. This includes all the surviving letters from the Beagle voyage - online for the first time - and all the letters from the years around the publication of Origin of species in 1859."
You can search by subject, correspondent, or date, and there is a nice section devoted to Darwin and religion. For fun, I did a search on "asses" and came up with a letter to J.D. Hooker with the following quote in it:
"Thank you much for thinking about Asses & Mules: the forked stripe on shoulder is a very curious point (& I have seen traces of it) for the meaning of the fork is plain when the legs are transversely barred, but is an absurdity (except on doctrine of inheritance) with an animal with unstriped legs."
Yes, I am very mature.

Monday, May 21, 2007

A species is what a taxonomist says it is

The Economist has a nice op-ed piece in it this week on taxonomic inflation -- how conservation minded taxonomists have had a tendency of late to reclassify subspecies as species (a suspiciously large number of which occur in the charismatic megafauna groups) in order to intensify the perceived threat of extinction, increase the biodiversity of a habitat and ramp up its claims for protection. The basic idea being that this sort of inflation will inevitably lead to devaluation, which is no good for species. Of course deciding on what is or is not a species can be awfully tricky, but the bottom line is this:

"... a species is what a taxonomist says it is. Evolution often fails to produce the clear divisions that human thought in general, and the law in particular, prefers to work with. It therefore behoves taxonomists to be honest. If they debase their currency, it will ultimately become valueless. Linnaeus the economist would have known that instinctively."
Good advice.

Link to article


The other day I heard about something called a BioBlitz, which appears to be a 24-hour inventory of all living organisms in a particular area. How cool is that? Apparently BioBlitz events occur all over the world at different times, and it seems that most of them have already occurred this year. Too bad, it sounds like fun. One problem I have with this program is it doesn't seem to have an overriding organizational structure. I do a google search for "BioBlitz" and I get web pages for inventories being done in New York, California, Connecticut, Colorado, DC, etc. And a wikipedia entry on the history of it, but there doesn't seem to be anyone putting all of this information together, which seems like it would be a good thing. I did find something called The First Annual Blogger BioBlitz, which appears to be a group of science bloggers collaborating on a bunch of bioblitzes. Looks like fun. Maybe I'll join them next year.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

A Grove of Evolutionary Trees

Julie J. Rehmeyer has an article in Science News about the mathematics of phylogenetic trees.

"Now, mathematicians have developed a new understanding of the mathematics of tree-shaped graphs, which makes possible the statistical analysis of evolutionary trees. The development will help biologists to make sense of the flood of newly available genetic information."

"Susan Holmes, a statistician at Stanford University, and mathematicians Louis Billera and Karen Vogtmann of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., have found a way to quantify the difference between two trees, effectively determining the distance between them. They used this distance function to construct a "space" of trees, a sort of theoretical forest."
Looks interesting.


Brown Ant -Felted Knit Pattern Kit

Another thing I can't do with one hand -- knitting. Actually, I can't do that with two hands. But if I could -- this looks pretty cool.

Radial head fracture

The ant room maven has suffered a minor setback in her quest to become a roller derby girl. Last Saturday during the Boston Derby Dame skate clinic I fell and broke my arm. Fun fun fun. So I have been out of commission for a few days recovering. Today is my first day back at the office. Here is a list of things I now know are very difficult to do with only one hand:

  • Drive
  • Put contact lenses in
  • Put my hair in a ponytail
  • Put on a bra
  • Floss
  • Tie my shoelaces

It is also surprisingly difficult to ID an ant with a microscope. Fortunately, I can type pretty well, and I have just received species identifications from Jeffery Sosa Calvo and Stephanie Johnson for Azteca, Rogeria, Discothyrea, Strumigenys, and Pyramica, so I still have lots of work I can be doing.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Science Friday talks about the Encyclopedia of Life

Looks like Science Friday will be interviewing Gary G. Borisy tomorrow (Friday) about the Encyclopedia of Life. Gary is a member of the Steering Committee of the Encyclopedia of Life Project as well as the director and Chief Executive Officer of Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods' Hole, Massachusetts. If you miss the NPR broadcast, you can listen to the podcast online.

Encyclopedia of Life

Okay, so I know everybody already knows about this, but I must blog about the Encyclopedia of Life. From their press release:

Many of the world’s leading scientific institutions today announced the launch of the Encyclopedia of Life, an unprecedented global effort to document all 1.8 million named species of animals, plants, and other forms of life on Earth. For the first time in the history of the planet, scientists, students, and citizens will have multi-media access to all known living species, even those that have just been discovered.
While specific Encyclopedia of Life efforts, including the scanning of key research publications and data, have been underway since January 2006, work has accelerated due to the support provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the recent discussion of the Encyclopedia of Life by renowned biologist Edward O. Wilson at the March 2007 Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) Conference.
It looks fantastic and I hope it will succeed, although it feels like this has been tried before -- for instance, the ALL Species Foundation, which I first heard about from Terry Erwin while at Tiputini Biodiversity Station, and which really inspired me to do what I am doing right now. This effort, at least seems to be receiving a lot of press/support/attention, so perhaps it has a chance. A completed Encyclopedia of Life (actually, just a completed Encyclopedia of Ants) is basically my wet dream. I am going to look into whether or not I can help in any way.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Acropyga update

Just received email from John LaPolla, who took a look at my Acropyga specimens. From his email:

"..All of your ids were correct except: esanguis, goeldii and keira: I would lump all of these into decedens groups probably either goeldii or decedens, Without males, the id is very difficult to tell between these two species..."

So there you go. I have updated my database and the appropriate pages on the site.

Photo: A. fuhrmanni

"Let's go Science!"

Saturday was roller derby day for The Ant Room Maven -- my new obsession. The season one championship bout between the Cosmonaughties and the Wicked Pissahs was a good time for all. By virtue of sitting on one side of the arena, we were handed blue pompoms and perforce became Cosmonaughties fans, a job which we took to with relish. Their schtick (you gotta have a schtick!) seems to be that they are evil soviet space scientists out to conquer the roller derby world. Some fans across the way had a giant sign that simply said "SCIENCE." At several points during the game the crowd went crazy with chants of "Let's Go, Science" or simply "Sci-ence, Sci-ence, Sci-ence." It's not often one gets to yell Science at the top of ones lungs over and over again. Very very cool.

I really really want to be a roller derby girl.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Organization Man

There is a nice article in Smithsonian Magazine this month about Linnaeus, entitled Organization Man. A few of my favorite paragraphs:

The approach earned Linnaeus the ire of his more prudish colleagues. They objected to his lyrical descriptions of the love lives of plants. Bad enough that a flower's petals should be compared to the "bridal bed...perfumed with so many sweet scents in order that the bridegroom and bride may therein celebrate their nuptials with the greater solemnity," but when Linnaeus defined polyandrous flowers as having "twenty males or more in the same bed as the female," this was too much. "Who would have thought that bluebells and lilies and onions could be up to such immorality?" jibed one critic, who dismissed the entire system as "loathsome harlotry" unworthy of the Creator.
Many of his ideas now seem ludicrous. He believed epilepsy could be caused by washing one's hair, and leprosy caught by eating herring worms. He persisted in the archaic belief that swallows wintered at the bottom of lakes. Others were quaint: he devised a clock based on the opening and closing times of various flowers.

But many of his other views were surprisingly modern. He foreshadowed Darwin in his belief in a universal struggle for survival. He was the first to classify human beings in the same genus as other primates, and he grouped whales with mammals (previously they had been considered fish). He advocated biological control as a means of dealing with insect pests (he was particularly keen to find the invertebrate "lion" that would control bedbugs), and he understood the importance of biodiversity: "I do not know how the world could persist gracefully if but a single animal species were to vanish from it," he wrote in his journal. He even conjectured that micro-organisms "smaller than the motes dancing in a beam of light" might be responsible for transmitting contagious diseases—long before medicine embraced the idea of pathogens. Linnaeus dabbled in aquaculture, successfully growing pearls in freshwater mussels. And he gave an important tweak to the Celsius scale of temperature measurement. Anders Celsius, a Linnaeus contemporary, had designated the boiling point of water to be 0 degrees and the freezing point to be 100. It was Linnaeus' idea to flip the scale

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Origami Ant

Sipho Mabona created this fantastic origami ant, which was apparently originally supposed to be a fly. I think the site also has a plan so you can do it yourself! There is also a rockin' flying katydid.