Thursday, January 17, 2008

Mmmmmm... ant berry

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A parasitic worm can make its ant victims swell into what looks like a delicious, juicy berry to birds, which apparently eat the ants and help the worm spread and reproduce, U.S. researchers reported on Wednesday.

The nematode, a type of roundworm, changes not only the appearance of the ant but also its behavior, with the ants holding out their bloated, glowing abdomens to entice the birds, the researchers report in The American Naturalist.

Robert Dudley of the University of California Berkeley and Steve Yanoviak of the University of Arkansas said the parasite and the way it works are new to science.

The black ants, found in the forests of Panama, are foul-tasting and not usually eaten by birds, they said.

Yanoviak acknowledged the team never saw birds eating one of the swollen ants but strongly suspected that they did.

"I definitely saw birds come in and seemingly stop and take a second look at those ants before flying off, probably because the ants were moving," he said in a statement.

"So I really suspect that these little bananaquits or tyrannids (flycatchers) are coming in and taking the ants, thinking they are fruit."

The researchers said that if the birds ate the ants, they could spread the worm's eggs in their droppings. These eggs would then be gathered by other ants who then feed and unwittingly infect their young.

"It's just crazy that something as dumb as a nematode can manipulate its host's exterior morphology and behavior in ways sufficient to convince a clever bird to facilitate transmission of the nematode," Dudley said in the statement.

"It's phenomenal that these nematodes actually turn the ants bright red, and that they look so much like the fruits in the forest canopy," added Yanoviak.

Yanoviak and George Poinar, now at Oregon State University in Corvallis, have written another study describing the nematode in the February 2008 issue of the journal Systematic Parasitology. They named it Myrmeconema neotropicum.

(Reporting by Maggie Fox; Editing by John O'Callaghan) Link

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Creative Commons and Photography

Like Alex Wild over at Myrmecos, I have occasionally been asked why I don't use a Creative Commons license on my ant photos. I looked into it briefly and it seemed like a good idea, but I never really got around to investigating it in more detail. After reading his most recent post, I may just decide not to:

"People occasionally ask why I don’t assign my photos a Creative Commons license. Dan Heller explains. And adds a horror story here.

The short of it is, while Creative Commons was established with the best of intentions it is easily abused in the photographic setting. Users unknowingly open themselves up to large legal risks, and I find photo licensing by traditional means to be both more secure and more professional."

Sounds like we're on the verge of a good old fashioned bio-smack down!

Benny Bleiman over at Zooillogix has a humorous take on the recent hubbub over the origins of altruism. For a less humorous (but more informative) take on the E.O. Wilson vs. Richard Dawkins face-off check out Ontogeny.

"Why do some creatures forgo their own reproduction to help their relatives survive and reproduce? While we all might like to believe that naked mole rats really do care and are thus willing to sacrifice their creepy little lives for the good of the colony, the true answer probably has more to do with gene frequency across generations and evolution.

A scene from the 2003 ant remake of "Saving Private Ryan". Needless to say, it did not fair well at the box office.

Since the late 1950's, the idea of 'kin selection' has been the most widely accepted explanation for such bizarre behavior in species. The basic premise of kin selection (before you all attack my summary, please note that I work in tech sales, not a genetics lab) is this: Natural selection tends to...

...weed out genes that put individuals at a reproductive disadvantage. When the gene, however, causes the individual to have a lessened chance of reproducing, but also increases the chance of the individual's relatives in reproducing, that gene may actually increase in frequency over time. Why? Because the individual's relatives also carry that gene. In these cases, the benefits that the gene causes to the relatives outweighs the losses that it causes for the individual and thus the gene continues to be passed along through generations.

What was her true motivation? The heavenly Father? Or a dominant gene?

The idea behind kin selection was originally proposed by JBS Haldane in 1955 and, though sometimes controversial, has been more or less widely accepted by the scientific community for the last 30-40 years. The idea even helped make Richard Dawkins a star, as a central idea in his 1976 bombshell The Selfish Gene.

Now, however, the whole idea of kin selection is being called into question by one of the most influential biologists of our time, E.O. Wilson of Harvard. Wilson has a new hypothesis that he is releasing in his upcoming book, Suck It! Just kidding the book is called The Superorganism.

"You're stupid," he seems to be saying.

According to Wilson, such behavior is not a result of kin selection, but of the fact that personal sacrifice by individuals increases the chances of overall colonies in surviving, and thus has been selected for over time.

Hmmm...sounds like we're on the verge of a good old fashioned bio-smack down!"

Asian Myrmecology

Ajay Narendra of Ant Visions lets us know that all articles in the first issue of Asian Myrmecology are available for free download. Check it out.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

groovy new ant images

Ant Visions has some cool new images of Tetraponera and Pachycondyla; I especially like this portrait of Tetraponera rufonigra. Looks like a headshot for character work in Hollywood.And myrmecos has posted some fabulous new photos of ants and plants including the Neotropical Acacia - Pseudomyrmex and Cecropia - Azteca systems and the Australian Myrmecodia - Philidris partnership. I love this photo of two Azteca alfari ants in a private moment. I feel like I should come up with a really cute caption, but instead, I'll just let it speak for itself.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Linnaeus' Legacy # 3

Greg Laden's blog is currently hosting Linnaeus' Legacy, a monthly carnival celebrating the diversity of life on this planet, and the methods we use to understand it. Below I have highlighted a few of my favorite entries:

The Specialness Of Species at Podblack Blog.
Creativity in biological nomenclature was something I learned about in the mid-90s, when I heard of a news report on a beetle named after Darth Vader. A genuine article, a newly-discovered beetle; indeed the product of research and study... so-called for his shiny head with a slit across the front, like the Sith Lord's helmet - Agathidium vaderi.

Lighting the Phylogenetic Tree by Tangled Up in Blue Guy

Bioluminescence lights the way for a whole host of living beings to either find their way in the dark, attract prey or just to provide pretty pictures (considering the design hypothesis to have some scientific value).

Reference Review: The Trials of Anamorphic Taxa is a review of Skovgaard, K., S. Rosendahl, K. O'Donnell & H. I. Nirenberg. 2003. Fusarium commune is a new species identified by morphological and molecular phylogenetic data. Mycologia 95(4): 630-636, a peer-reviewed paper, covered by Christopher Taylor or a Catalogue of Organisms.

Fusarium is a genus of filamentous soil fungi ... that is best known as a cause of a selection of nasty diseases of crop plants. It is an anamorphic genus - that is, it includes taxa that reproduce asexually. Fungal taxonomy maintains a complicated system of classifying asexual anamorphs separately from sexual teleomorphs...

New Views of Mammals: The Giraffe

A recent paper on the diversity of giraffes has received considerable attention in the blogosphere, including these posts:

Now We Are Six by Coturnix at A Blog Around the Clock

Is there any kid who does not love giraffes? They are just so amazing: tall, leggy, fast and graceful, with prehensile tongues and a need to go through complex calistehnics in order to drink. The favourites at zoos, in natural history museums and on TV nature shows....Giraffes were also important players in the history of evolutionary thought and I bet you have all seen, and heard the criticisms of, the iconic comparison between Lamarck's and Darwin's notions of evolution using a comic strip featuring giraffes and how they got their long necks.... But, one thing that you think when you think of giraffes is the giraffe, i.e., one thing, one species. There have been inklings recently that this thinking may change, finally culminating in a very interesting paper published yesterday...

There Are More Giraffe Species Than You Think

How many species of giraffes are there? Well, it may surprise you to learn this, but some people have actually thought about this throughout the decades, and they decided that there is only one species, Giraffa camelopardalis. However, a paper published today in BMC Biology convincingly demonstrates that giraffes are actually comprised of at least six, and possibly as many as eleven separate species instead of just one, as originally thought.

Diversity linked to ecosystem function by Peter Etnoyer at Deep-Sea News.

A recent study linking deep-sea biodiversity to ecosystem processes recognized that 1) the deep-sea supports the largest biomass of living things on the planet and 2) the deep-sea represents the most important ecosystem for carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorous cycling. The chosen indicator species for the study was the nematode worm.

The Great Chain of Being...

... may be an invalid idea, but the Great Chain of the Internet is real. Linking Linnaeus is a post at The Disperal of Darwin blog, with nearly two dozen organized links to Linnaeus related resources...

On December 12, Edward O. Wilson spoke on "The Great Linnean Enterprise" at the Linnean Society. I think it is, however, a retelling of another lecture he gave in 2004 for the American Philosophical Society as part of a symposium, "Science, Art, and Knowledge: Practicing Natural History from the Enlightenment to the Twenty-first Century" (papers given at this symposium are available online as pdfs, including Wilson's "The Linnaean Enterprise: Past, Present, and Future." Deb of A Celebration of Mundanity gives her thoughts on the 2007 lecture here, and the Linnean Society has a schedule of upcoming 2008 programs... [Go to the post to find a zillion links to all of these resources]

The Digital Cuttlefish continues the theme of connections into entirely unexpected territory with Of Trees, and Life, and Fun

Clicking in through a post at The Loom, I was led to a wonderfully inspirational site, the Interactive Tree Of Life! For some people, a site like this puts them immediately in mind of Darwin. Others, Linnaeus. Others, Gould. Others, others. ... Not me. ... Me, I see a site like this and immediately think of Ogden Nash. Naturally.

What are the Bare Necessities? is a post at the Catalogue of Organisms (the blog of Christopher Taylor, Linnaeus' Legacy's founder).

This is a blog on Peer Reviewed Research, in particular, Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research: Valdecasas, A. G., D. Williams & Q. D. Wheeler. 2007. 'Integrative taxonomy' then and now: a response to Dayrat (2005). Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 93 (1): 211-216.

The question ... ultimately, is the current Taxonomy Crisis - essentially, the fact that there are just too many undescribed species and not enough work being done to identify them.

Species naming rights by Jim Lemire of the blog 'from Archaea to Zeazanthol.'

I'm not a taxonomist. I have never been involved in the discovery, description, or naming of a new species. Or even in the renaming of a species once considered something else. So, I really don't know the logistics of providing a name to a species. I know that species are named for what they look like, where they are found, who discovered them, or in honor of someone else. I don't know the official rules of the game or even if there are official rules, but I never once would have thought that someone could buy the rights to a species name.... Well, that's what seems to be happening according to a story out of Scripps. Apparently, Scripps has a collection of new species that need to be named and has decided to use this as a fund-raising tool.


The following is a list of additional links to a range of blog posts related to the topics at hand.

Extreme Dinosaur: Nigersaurus, the Mesozoic Cow!

PODCAST: BBC's Great Lives on Alfred Russel Wallace

Surreal caecilians part I: tentacles and protrusible eyes

Surreal caecilians part II: pass mum's skin, hold the mayo

Seasonal snails

The Ant Analogy

Friday, January 04, 2008

Public Service Announcement: Formica nitidiventris = F. pallidefulva

I have to admit that although I've become pretty handy at identifying Amazonian ants, I have no idea what the ants outside my office are. Formica? What? So Myrmecos's public service announcement will probably be more useful to others. So here it is -- Via Myrmecos:

In the comments, James Trager brings to our attention his recent synonymy of the venerable Formica nitidiventris with Formica pallidefulva. This is one of the most common ants, and in my opinion one of the prettiest, in eastern North America. Many of us from the east learned of this ubiquitous species incorrectly as F. nitidiventris, so the synonymy may take some getting used to. In any case, the name nitidiventris is sunk, so you’ll only make yourself look obsolete if you persist in using it.

The Trager et al (2007) revision of the Formica pallidefulva group is excellent, by the way. Thorough and well-illustrated. I had no troubles sorting out the ants in my collection, which turned out to contain all five of the group’s species.

source: Trager, J. C., J. A. MacGown and M. D. Trager. 2007. Revision of the Nearctic endemic Formica pallidefulva group, pp 610-636. In Snelling, R. R., B. L. Fisher, and P. S. Ward (eds) Advances in ant systematics (Hymenoptera: Formicidae): homage to E. O. Wilson – 50 years of contributions. Memoirs of the American Entomological Institute, 80.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Butterflies Dupe Ants, Trigger "Smell" Race

I had a bunch of hits on my antroom newsfeeder about a very interesting new paper in this week's Science, but I liked the blog entry from Zooillogix the best, so here it is:

A new scientific paper has shown a strange, deceptive adaptation in the Maculinea butterflies of North Western Europe--an adaptation that has caused a genetic race between the butterflies and many different species of ants. The butterflies' caterpillar larvae emit a powerful smell that tricks the ants into believing that they are in fact ant larvae. The ants then...

...carry the larvae back to their secret lairs, and feed them. Just like the famed cuckoo birds, the larvae trick the ants so effectively that the ants give up on taking care of their own brood to focus exclusively on the caterpillars.

In response to this invasion, however, ants from colonies that have been "parasited" by the butterflies have evolved to have a different odor than the butterflies, and thus are able to recognize the caterpillars as frauds.

In their research David Nash, Jacobus Boomsma and others from the Centre for Social Evolution (CSE) at the University of Copenhagen show that colonies of ants which developed a resistance (a different smell) and then interbred with colonies who had not been exposed to the parasites lost their resistance as the genes were diluted. Of course, they then fell victim to the Maculinea butterflies again.

Center for Ecology and Conservation Biology 2007 newsletter

The CECB newsletter for 2007 has a nice mention in it of my Naturwissenschaften paper, as well as a lot of other work being done at Tiputini. New facilities, too. Check it out.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Giraffes And Frogs Provide More Evidence Of New Species Hidden In Plain Sight

So here are even more reasons for me to feel like I am not doing a good enough job identifying all of the ant diversity at Tiputini. Two recent studies have shown that identical looking organisms can in fact be several distinct species:

"ScienceDaily (Jan. 2, 2008) — Two new articles provide further evidence that we have hugely underestimated the number of species with which we share our planet. Today sophisticated genetic techniques mean that superficially identical animals previously classed as members of a single species, including the frogs and giraffes in these studies, could in fact come from several distinct 'cryptic' species.

In the Upper Amazon, Kathryn Elmer and Stephen Lougheed working at Queen's University, Kingston, Canada teamed up with José Dávila from Instituto de Investigación en Recursos Cinegéticos, Cuidad Real, Spain to investigate the terrestrial leaflitter frog (Eleutherodactylus ockendeni) at 13 locations across Ecuador.

Looking at the frogs' mitochondrial and nuclear DNA, the researchers found three distinct species, which look very much alike. These species have distinct geographic distributions, but these don't correspond to modern landscape barriers. Coupled with phylogenetic analyses, this suggests they diverged before the Ecuadorean Andes arose, in the Miocene period over 5.3 million years ago.

"Our research coupled with other studies suggests that species richness in the upper Amazon is drastically underestimated by current inventories based on morphospecies," say the authors.

And in Africa, an interdisciplinary team from the University of California, Los Angeles, Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo, and the Mpala Research Centre in Kenya has found that there may be more to the giraffe than meets the eye, too.

Their analysis of nuclear and mitochondrial DNA shows at least six genealogically distinct lineages of giraffe in Africa, with little evidence of interbreeding between them. Further divisions within these groups mean that in total the researchers have spotted 11 genetically distinct populations.

"Such extreme genetic subdivision within a large vertebrate with high dispersal capabilities is unprecedented and exceeds that of any other large African mammal," says graduate student David Brown, first author of the study. The researchers estimate that the giraffe populations they surveyed have been genetically distinct for between 0.13 and 1.62 million years. The findings have serious implications for giraffe conservation because some among these subgroups have as few as 100 members, making them highly endangered -- if not yet officially recognised -- species."

Journal articles:

Cryptic diversity and deep divergence in an upper Amazonian frog, Eleutherodactylus ockendeni. Kathryn R Elmer, Jose A Davila and Stephen C Lougheed. BMC Evolutionary Biology (in press)

Extensive Population Genetic Structure in the Giraffe. David M Brown, Rick A Brenneman, Klaus-Peter Koepfli, John P Pollinger, Borja Mila, Nicholas J Georgiadis, Edward E Louis Jr, Gregory F Grether, David K Jacobs and Robert K Wayne. BMC Biology (in press)

Adapted from materials provided by BioMed Central.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

2007: The Year in Ants

Myrmecos recaps the best of the ant world this past year. And, hey, I'm even on there! Which kind of makes me feel bad for not getting more done. But that's what 2008 is for, right?

"This week the blogosphere is busy recapping 2007 with lists of top stories in politics, news, and celebrity haircuts. In all the hoopla surrounding year’s end, somehow everyone seems to have forgotten the ants, even though the, um, fast-paced world of Myrmecology has made plenty of discoveries this year. In no particular order, here is my list of the most significant advances in Ant Science from 2007.

Outside the realm of technical publications 2007 also saw other advances, especially online. Kiko Gómez & Xavier Espadaler created a fantastic database of Spanish Ants at, continued to add new faunas such as Costa Rica and New Zealand, Ajay Narendra launched a live ant image gallery for the Indian and Australian faunas, Kari Ryder-Wilkie continued to add images to the Ants of Tiputini, Jochen Bihn added more pages to the Ants of Cachoeira, Nugi from the Ant Farm Boards created an image gallery of Indonesian insects, and Benoit Guenard launched ant image galleries from Australia and North Carolina. The Ant Course was held in Arizona this year, attracting over two dozen students, and instructors Brian Fisher and Stefan Cover published an excellent guide to the Ant Genera of North America. American Public Television’s NOVA program produced an ant-related show, and National Geographic continued to publish Mark Moffett’s photographic series on ants.

Here’s hoping that 2008 holds yet more Myrmecological treats!"