Archive for the ‘Bio Blunder’ Category

Somewhere in Bolivia, two men decided to steal some motorcycles. They were excited about their loot, until they ended up being tied to a tree with venomous Pseudomyrmex triplarinus ants. This, as reported via the Associated Press in The Guardian and The Washington Post, was the near-fatal penalty suffered by these two miscreants for their ill-advised behavior. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only tragedy in this story.

In both newspapers, the portrayal of the key players – the insects – is horribly botched. The Guardian refers to the “venom of fire ants” in the caption of what looks to me to be a beetle (certainly not an ant), and fails to follow basic conventions like capitalizing the name of the genus “Pseudomyrmex” and italicizing the entire scientific name. The Post mercifully spares us a photo, but sticks “fire ants” in the title of its article that contains the same egregious errors as the one in The Guardian (having essentially identical AP-sourced content).

Pseudomyrmex triplarinus is completely different from fire ants. Completely different. Two-second Google search different. So is the difference between an “ant” and a “beetle”. And failing to properly capitalize and italicize the scientific name betrays the scientific illiteracy of the writer. But, despite these errors, the intriguing nature of the story makes it worth a read.

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Ants are amazing. Everyone knows this. But even with an innate sense of wonder at the workings of such tiny beings, mankind is rife with misconceptions about this omnipresent family of fascinating species. Here are what I consider to be the top three misconceptions about ants:

1. Fire ant bites are very painful

This is probably the most consistent mistake I come across in conversation and in print. Many people believe that the sharp, chemical-induced pain delivered by some species of ants, like fire ants, originates from a bite. This faulty belief likely derives from the fact that many species do in fact bite, as an anchor for more effective stinging. Alex Wild has this great image of such a fire ant attack:
Fire Ants

For an example of this misconception in action, see this confused New York Times information sheet on fire ants that fails to discriminate between “bite” and “sting”. I should note that you often can feel something from an ant bite, especially from larger species, but this is nothing more than a slight pressure or mildly painful pinch.

2. Some species are special “winged ants”

During the summer, you may find your place of abode momentarily invaded by a horde of winged ants. When I was younger, I thought that these were a special species of ants with wings, and I’ve found that this belief is not unique to my younger self. In actuality, nearly every ant species produces winged individuals at some point during the year, as “winged ants” are members of the reproductive caste (queens or males). During the nuptial flight, males and queens (or, according to some, “princesses”) will emerge, generating both new nests for the species and fresh misconceptions for people.

3. A worker ant is a “he”

Ants are similar to humans in so many ways, that I think this mistake is understandable. Many people assume that ant workers include both males and females, and will therefore resort to “he” when referring to an ant they encounter. However, all ant workers – without exception, to my knowledge – are female. Such sex uniformity is preserved via the haplodiploid system employed by most ants, where the unfertilized eggs the queen lays become reproductive males (among the “winged ants” addressed above), and the fertilized eggs become females (either winged queens or unwinged workers).

So, in summary: Sting, not bite. Reproductives, not species. She, not he.

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A friend of mine recently shared with me a story from CNN in which humans, per Solomon’s instructions, look to the ant, consider its ways, and are wise. Researchers have developed a digital camera that actually mimics the eye of various insects, including the fire ant. Below is the image included in the article:

Supposed Fire Ant

This is certainly an impressive feat, and may lead to advances in cameras for both wide-angle purposes and small spaces like those in the human body. Less impressive is the inclusion of the “fire ant” in the photo, which is, incidentally, not a fire ant (genus Solenopsis). I believe that this is actually some sort of Pheidole species, but I’m not sure. I was first suspicious due to the rugosity (bumpiness) of the exoskelton, which is not something I typically associate with the rather smooth fire ants, but two other definitive traits soon presented themselves. The first is the presence of spines on the “propodeum”, the last segment of the “mesosoma” (the middle section of the ant which looks like a thorax, but is actually both the thorax and part of the abdomen fused to the thorax). Solenopsis species lack such spines. The second trait is the number of segments of the club of the ant’s antennae. Solenopsis species only have a two-segmented club, while this individual has a four-segmented club (like in some Pheidole and other genera). See the image below:
Not a fire ant

So, in summary: cool discovery, bad taxonomy.

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Alex Wild over at Myrmecos posted this photo a couple of weeks ago, with the caption from the photographer below:

ant-fail

 

Ant no love like a mother’s love…A mother ant shows off her strength and agility as she plays with her young child and lifts it above her head. The yellow ant stood on a delicate purple flower and balanced on her back two legs as she juggled the youngster, who is a third her size. Photographer Adegsm (real name Thanh Ta Quang), who took over 2,000 snaps of the ants in a month but only got a handful of pictures he was happy with. SEE OUR COPY FOR DETAILS…Main pic: The ‘mother’ ant lifts her youngster above her head…Please byline: Pic: Adegsm /Solent..© Adegsm/Solent.UK +44 (0) 2380 458800.

This is hilariously misinformed for several reasons, a fact that may not be obvious to those who are woefully unaware of the ant and its ways. Lemme break it down:

1) Mothers (i.e. queens) in ant colonies are physically distinct, and noticeably so, from their worker ant “children”. They typically have a proportionally larger middle section (mesosoma), and wings, or scars from the removal of their wings after mating. Compare these two individuals below (images from Antweb):

Worker (of a related taxon):

Queen (“mother”), winged:

 

2) In the ant community, younger doesn’t mean smaller. Individuals emerge from their pupae fully formed, and don’t grow as they age. They will sometimes darken in color. Size differences at the worker level instead arise from caste differences (individuals with different roles as part of the nest) or simply nest variation in worker size.

 

3) This is clearly a photoshopped picture. As Dr. James Trager points out in the comments section of Wild’s blog, these are weaver ants, and likely “the smaller ant was walking (hanging) around on its lower portion, perhaps getting in position to pull two leaves together”.

 

To give the photographer an iota of the benefit of the doubt, the end of the caption does read ” ‘mother’ ” in quotations, so it is possible he/she knew there were no queens present in the picture. Either way, the caption, and photo itself, are highly misleading to the myrmecologically uninformed masses!

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Over at Myrmecos, Alex Wild has documented yet another terrible taxonomy fail:

(From here)

This illustrates one of the many reasons why science education is important. There are many traits which separate Solenopsis (fire ants), in the subfamily Myrmicinae, from Camponotus (carpenter ants), in the subfamily Formicinae and pictured above. The most obvious of these, from a taxonomic perspective, is the presence of a postpetiole, or second waist segment, in Solenopsis (and all Myrmicines) that is lacking in Camponotus (and all Formicines). Although this trait is not present in this photo, the differences between these two genera are many and obvious (compare this to this). Despite the egregiousness of this error, it only scores a 19.2 according to Wild’s Taxonomy Fail Index. For a comparison, confusing a possum and a cat receives a 24.6. So it could be worse.

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Acrobant

A friend of mine just sent me an edited version of this photo:

Quite an impressive bit of acrobantics. According to this article, “Robertus Agung Sudiatmoko captured the pose when a trail of fire ants passed near him in the small village of Cibinong, Indonesia.” There’s only one problem with this statement: this is a weaver ant, genus Oecophylla, not a fire ant, genus Solenopsis. I’m not sure where this is on the Myrmecos Taxonomy Fail Index, but it’s obviously a silly mistake! Do you see a postpetiole? I didn’t think so.

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An interesting myrmecological find is discussed: here. Alex Wild laments at the titling of some articles discussing the research: here.

The genus Pheidole is important to me, as one of my research activities this year is taxonomic work on the Pheidole across several Pacific islands, including Fiji, the Solomon Islands, New Guinea, and the Federated States of Micronesia, as well as some others. The big heads always help to make the work enjoyable, but the diverse group is also quite difficult to work with, as the specific identification of morphospecies is made challenging by the number of species and the limited amount of previous taxonomic work on the genus in areas such as the Pacific islands. There are no reliable keys to species, for example. But hopefully this work will help shed some light on the phylogeny and taxonomy of this large, widespread genus!

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