It has been about 8 months since my last post, and since then I have returned from China and begun my Ph.D. program in the Committee on Evolutionary Biology at the University of Chicago. More information on this work is here.

To start off the resumption of my blogging, I leave you with today’s NPR story on ants and how they prevent traffic jams: here.

Ants in a Trail
(iStockphoto image from the NPR piece)

Crime and Punishmant

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.

Here in China, the Jewish holiday of Passover has arrived. So today’s entry for Monday Mandarin Meanings has nothing to do with insects, but instead relates to bread:


This is wújiàobǐng, the Mandarin word for matzo (generally pronounced “maht-suh”, for all you Gentiles out there). Matzo is unleavened bread, or bread that has not risen, typically meaning that it has no yeast. This is the cracker-looking bread eaten on Passover to commemorate the Jewish people’s flight from bondage in Egypt, during which there was not enough time for the bread to rise. Reasonably, the Chinese word translates into something like “unleavened flatbread” (“无” is “no” or “not”, “酵” is “leaven”, and “饼” is the word often used for flat breads, pancakes, etc.).

I purchased three boxes of matzo from Taobao, the Chinese version of, and, remarkably, they arrived from Hong Kong in three days. It is a non-kosher, Kupiec brand matzo with “provence herbs”, but it does the trick.

Ants of Xishuangbanna

Last summer, I traveled to Japan to do a collections trip in beautiful Xishuangbanna, which quickly yielded a new species in one of the rarest genera in the world, Bannapone scrobiceps. Now, Cong Liu, the graduate student who was in the expedition and is now in Evan Economo’s lab at OIST, has a new website with a full catalog of the discoveries, here. As noted, the collections yielded 237 species in 58 genera – not too shabby for a two-week trip into a relatively limited area. Each species has an accompanying photo of a representative of each species, presumably taken by the auto montage machine at OIST. There are some real exciting finds, like new generic records for China (Echinopla cherapunjiensis and Gesomyrmex kalshoveni), some just awesome looking gals (MyrmoterasMystrium, and Polyrhachis bihamata and P. furcata), the aforementioned Bannapone scrobiceps, and an “unknown” species. The list, and associated images, will serve as a great resource for anyone doing research in South China or the surrounding countries, and will be interesting to everyone with an interest in the diversity of life.

Abe’s Ant

I’ve already mentioned two brilliant men this week who have considered ants in some way. I will now add Abraham Lincoln to this list. In a fragment of a speech given somewhere around 1854, Mr. Honest Abe looked to the ant as a poignant metaphor:

… Made so plain by our good Father in Heaven, that all feel and understand it, even down to brutes and creeping insects. The ant, who has toiled and dragged a crumb to his nest, will furiously defend the fruit of his labor, against whatever robber assails him. So plain, that the most dumb and stupid slave that ever toiled for a master, does constantly know that he is wronged. So plain that no one, high or low, ever does mistake it, except in a plainly selfish way; for although volume upon volume is written to prove slavery a very good thing, we never hear of the man who wishes to take the good of it, by being a slave himself.

I’m not sure what it is about ants that inspires people. Oh wait, yeah I do. It’s because they’re ants. From writers (herehere, and here) to civil rights activists (here and here) to the founder of Sikhism to saints to Laozi to journalists to philosophers to veterinarians to countless others, ants seem to carry a universal appeal for anyone who stops to consider the human condition. So, have you thought about ants recently? If not, I guess you don’t care about mankind.

On Langton’s Ant

One of the most wonderful blogs on the internet, Futility Closet, recently ran a piece on something called “Langton’s Ant“. This is exactly as interesting as it sounds, meaning it’s incredibly interesting.

This ant is a simulated object placed on a grid. It is given two simple instructions (wording from Wikipedia):

1) At a white square, turn 90° right, flip the color of the square, move forward one unit

2) At a black square, turn 90° left, flip the color of the square, move forward one unit

From these two instructions, the ant will appear to move in a mostly random pattern until, seemingly arbitrarily, it reaches around step 10,000. After this point, it generates a “highway” (why they didn’t call this a “trail” or “tunnel” I’ll never know), “following a repeating loop of 104 steps that unfolds forever”. It hurts my brain, almost to the point of insantity. See below for what one of these “highways” look like:

Additional fun facts: Christopher Langton (of Langton’s Ant fame) graduated from the University of Michigan, and he looks something like this:

I’ve covered Fort Wayne’s NBA D-League team, the Mad Ants, a couple times before. Well, per my presciant prediction in my first post on the Ants, they are “irrefutably the team to beat” at this year’s playoffs, as reported in the surely unbiased Fort Wayne-based The Journal Gazette. I look forward to their ultimate success.


Fort Wayne Mad Ants logo