“Maybe I’ll be a whale scientist” and other observations about ants by an 8 year old.

New ant species to the state of GA.

Above is Temnothorax tuscaloosae a new species (to Georgia) found with my nieces.

I took my nieces out for a day hiking in the woods and we traveled by car and hiked along some of my favorite trails in Northwest GA.  Stop one was a plateau ridge trail on top of Pigeon Mountain.  It is a place where nobs of sandstone have weathered away to create incredibly beautiful mushroom shaped and other morphologically-odd boulders.  As sandstone weathers slower and has fewer soil enriching elements than many mineral rich rocks, the layer of topsoil here is thin and nutrient poor.  Typical stands of trees include dwarfed hickories, pines, and oak trees often with a grass vegetative layer reminiscent of open long leaf pine savannahs in the lower piedmont region of GA. These open montane woodlands may be less common than in the past due to fire suppression which has increased the shrubby sub-canopy layer and other fire intolerant trees.

Below are examples of variability in habitats along the Pigeon Mountain Rock Town Trail.

HabitatsPigeonMt

It seems that water should be scarce in these sandy well drained soils, but micro-habitats called sag ponds occur and were formed in this region as underground caves collapsed and created surface depressions. Rain washed silt, sediment and organic matter into these depressions which, over time packs the sandy soil water-tight creating these ponds, and so unseen caves became above ground ponds!  These ponds, although scarce, occur with some regularity, even on the tops of ridges and plateaus in this region. These ponds house many species of plants normally found further south and are considered rare communities in GA.

The open woodlands occur naturally in patches without fire and in rocky areas with little soil, but it is thought that the native Americans of this region used fire to maintain the openness of forests over the majority of the last 10,000 years.  Open woodlands would have increased preferred ground vegetation for foraging deer and other wildlife and in essence fire-maintained habitats insured a sustainable hunting ground for these early natives. I find it interesting that these early Americans may have influenced natural plant and animal community assemblages over such a long period of time that included a major warming period after the last ice age. Thus, humans-with-fire would have affected the survivability of many plants and animals with consistency in a changing environment.  So now when the forest service decides how to manage these forest, the question is -what is being managed for when we introduce fire management (again)? I’m fine for the goal of a management to be simply for biodiversity, but natural changes occur and I wonder if we are trying to capture a snapshot in time by managing lands with rigid schedules.  Something that may increase biodiversity at present, but decrease biodiversity over time. We hardly understand long-term changes in plant and animal communities.  Even on small time scales forests are rarely observed as long as a single human lifespan. – oh the thoughts that occur as you wander the woods…

Home of several co-occuring Temnothorax ant species.

Home of several co-occuring Temnothorax ant species.

Pictured above is stop two, a typical ridge along Taylor’s Ridge, the westernmost sandstone ridge of the ridge and valley physiographic region, which fingers along the southern base of the Cumberland Plateau.

Although in my research I am now trying to measure or quantify characteristics of habitats that might be important to ant diversity, at present my not-scientific gut says that abiotic heterogeneity may largely predict the number of ants I find in a given habitat.   There is no environment so physically-variable than a rocky montane landscape.  Maybe there is nothing so gratifying to my sense of discovery as flipping rocks to see what might live beneath, and under these rocks it is easy to see how basic physical differences may affect tiny creatures.  Under one rock it is bone dry, under another -marshy, sandy, silty, cavernous, flat, deep, shallow, hot, or cold. This is a place of rocks and I’m not so sure if it is my favoritism of this landscape and therefore it is my extra effort in rock-flipping that results in a higher personal discovery rate (of ants) or if there are actual real differences in ant diversity here compared to a flat, rockless landscape.  I expect my science to tell me how they differ, but when I’m out with my nieces I just want to get lost in the woods and have them experience something I cherish.

IMG_7293

Though three of my four nieces went to the woods, only one stayed out for the entire day. Above, Pictured at our third stop at Keown Falls, GA, is my niece Farrah with forceps, on a log, experiencing discovery, and going outside.  By this time she had already seen two species of army ants (Neivamyrmex nigrescens & N. carolinensis), fire-ants (Solenopis invicta X richteri), a small shy nut nesting ant not previously known from GA Temnothorax tuscaloosae (pictured at top),  Temnothorax ambiguus (another state record from the habitat pictured at Taylor’s Ridge), watched Temnothorax schaumii duck around peanut butter baited bark crevices, helped me collect Temnothorax curvispinosus in bamboo stems, saw Temnothorax longispinosus, and found Temnothorax pergandei nesting in hickory nuts (Carya glabra), she saw Seed dispersing Aphaenogaster spp., and many other ant species as well.  When I asked her which ones she liked best, she could tell me which species she liked best (she had learned many species by their common names but she could mainly distinguish them by describing the different ways they moved!).  She said “fire ants are boring, all they did was come out of their mound and look lost”, and that her favorite were the army ants because they ran low to the ground,  had quickly moving antennae,  and moved in lines.  She thought that although army ants are tough and fierce, and they ate other ant babies, they weren’t so mean to people. Once we got back to my parents house where we were staying, she pushed through her tiredness to stay up and help me blow out Temnothorax curvispinosus ant colonies out of bamboo sticks and count them as we placed them into one-dram vials.  At ten O’clock, way past her bedtime, her mother (my sister) told her she had to go to bed.  She told her to “wait” -annoyed that her mother would interfere with the importance of her science!  As she finished with her head nodding off and with eyes that needed toothpicks to hold them open,  she stumbled up the stairs to her bed as she told me she might not want to be an ant-scientist when she grew up, but said “maybe I’ll be a whale scientist”.

IMG_7417Neivamyrmex nigrescens

Farrah_1Tired but not giving up until the last ant is counted, Farrah helps me process colonies of Temnothorax curvispinosus

A new Strumigenys species In Los Angeles?

Site of a possible new California Strumigenys ant species several species of Temnothorax.

Site of a possible new California Strumigenys ant species

The close association of Strumigenys ants with other ants seems to be greater than chance alone.  Wesson described  Strumigenys pergandei  colonies closely associated with nests of Carpenter ants, Camponotus pennsylvanica,  wood/field ants Formica integra, F. fusca, and opportunistic and common ants Aphaenogaster fulva.   Arizona dacetines S. arizonica inhabit Trachymyrmex arizonensis nests, a possible obligate relationship, and recently I have found on several occasions colonies of S. rostrata nesting with Temnothorax curvispinosus as well as with Nylanderia spp. in the same hickory nut!  Wesson & Wesson reported several Strumigenys pergandei hunted Collembola that were associated with other ant nests, but Wilson (1954 ), observed S. louisianae,  and non-native S. membranifera ate other ant larvae. I wonder how many and how often Strumigenys eat eggs or larvae of other ants?  Since revisiting a few early natural history papers, I took a week to quest for Strumigenys ants that may live in sticks/logs and possibly nest with or near other ants.  Having just finished a challenging academic quarter, I took a couple days to perform not-academic ant collecting.  I excused myself from responsibility and seeked out personally interesting habitats to collect ants – namely to collect ants of the genus  Strumigenys.

West of Louisiana Strumigenys abundance and diversity decreases dramatically, and most native species have only been found in small geographic or ecological ranges.  When it comes to California, native Strumigenys are SCARCE! And when it comes to Los Angeles, native Strumigenys do not exist- or did not exist…

I went to look for Strumigens anyway. I spent a couple afternoons sifting litter in moist ravines and depressions in and near the canyons and mountains of Topanga CA.  I brought back several Temnothorax colonies alive that had nested in sticks in the ground as well as sifted litter and debris for Winkler extractions.   As I sifted through a refuse pile of what I now believe to be Temnothorax caguatan, I saw the undeniably Strumigenys-like spongiform tissue.  I have revisited the site several times, and though I expect that there are more than the one ant I found, I have failed to recover additional specimens!  If anyone wants to head out to collect, let me know!

Strumigenys CA_01_BOOHER

 

Army ants eat Georgia Strumigenys

armyantpost

Field Notes on Strumigenys — SCNC Artificial nest site 59-1 — Athens, GA Sandy Creek Nature Center — 10:00 am, 26 August 2012

On June 4 through 6, I placed four grids of 50 artificial ant nests inside a half-acre area of mixed pine and hardwood forest. On 26 August 2012, while Dr. Rick Duffield and I collected artificial nests, we found a trail of raiding Neivamyrmex opacithorax. When we cleared the leaves to determine their trail direction, we found a brood stash and discovered the trail forked and led to two artificial nests. While Rick was sucking up brood stash with his aspirator, I continued to follow their trail and collect a few workers.  The trail petered out as ants dispersed away from the trunk trail, but we managed to find another stash 30cm away from the first.  We had great success with the artificial nests at this site ,with colony recruitment to artificial nests near 20%.  Of 200 total traps, we collected 38 colonies including a second S. ohioensis colony (59-4-C9) and nine S. rostrata colonies. Though, it was our first artificial nest capture of Strumigenys in GA, we found the N. opacithorax activity most exciting.  Back at my microscope, I sorted the two N. opacithorax brood stashes as well as the ants we collected in the artificial nests.  The following tables quantify our observations.

Table1. Neivamyrmex opacithorax brood stash

artificial nest

pupae

larvae

refuse

 distance to brood stash

Strumigenys ohioensis

59-1-A4

14

15

y

2.3

Aphaenogaster carolinensis

59-1-A6

10

0

n

0.3

Temnothorax curvispinosus

59-1-B7

2

0

n

0.3

Nylanderia faisonensis

59-1-E4

2

0

y

1.3

Lasius alienus

n/a

0

0

y

n/a

Table 2. S. ohioensis colonies collected in artificial nests

artificial nest

distance  to brood stash

pupae

larvae

workers

gynes

S. ohioensis

59-1-A4

2.3

0

7

9

0

S. ohioensis

59-4-C9

45

18

23

43

4

 

We also found a lone S. ohioensis on a rock about a meter away from her probable nest (59-1-A4).  I wondered if N. opacithorax removed members of S. ohioensis colonies away from their nests along with brood, or if the ant was lost, foraging, or relocating/searching for a new nest?  I cannot imagine the slow moving Dacetine finding her way back home if the army ant dropped her even .5 meters from her colonies odor trails.

Previous witnessing this event, I likened Strumigenys’ spongiform tissue to the magic of an invisible cloak, manufacturing innumerate chemicals for protection, defense, predation, and possibly just making them plain invisible.  I still do not know whether the spongiform tissue produces chemicals or has other functions, but at least I reluctantly know S. ohioensis are part of N. opacithorax diet.  Just to check whether another Strumigenys may also fall prey to army ants, I brought home a live colony of Strumigenys rostrata as well as 20 army ant workers, but failed to recreate an environment producing natural N. opacithorax activity, and thus, there was no drama to report from home.

Dr. Richard M. Duffield is a Professor Emeritus of Howard University and was once a student of the fantastic chemical ecologist Dr. Murray Blum.  Rick has a nose for ants and can identify chemical compounds in, and thus many species of, ants by smell.  He recently published a paper on nut nesting and artificial nest use in Strumigenys and we have been working on improving and testing new artificial nest designs.

Ant Opts Out of the Hexapods

While sorting through a sifted leaf litter (berlese) sample, I came across an Aphaenogaster carolinensis that just looked odd.  I pulled it out and it took me a second to realize she was missing two (hind) legs and her petiole was fused to her thorax.  As ants normally move in an alternating tripod gait, I wondered how she could carry objects without falling over… and ran across this new gem of an article.

[Karin Moll, Flavio Roces, and Walter Federle, ‘How Load-Carrying Ants Avoid Falling Over: Mechanical Stability During Foraging in Atta Vollenweideri Grass-Cutting Ants’, Plos One, 8 (2013)]  …

photo4leggedant1

Picture on the left is through my microscope and to the right is the pinned specimen with background removed for clarity.

A short introduction to me

About me: For the past ten or twelve years I have owned and manufactured a company that produces a line of reclaimed wood products, The Cornerstone Floor Group.  This company brought me great creative and financial freedom as well as provided international experiences I cherish.  But,  over the past couple years I have found myself back at a microscope, turning rocks, or sifting litter –looking for and identifying ants as well as volunteering my time curating the Georgia Museum of Natural History’s ant collection.  Last year, during one of my last work trips, I went to Brazil.  It was a dream job and I was there for 20 days working with my favorite designers on a massive estate for a client I knew well. An Architectural Digest job that should define my career, however, my interest lie elsewhere and I spent any moment of free time in the wilderness snapping twigs and sifting litter looking for Strumigenys ants.  The excitement of discovery, of just seeing new things and the hunt for new ants (to me or science) is possibly my only indefatigable quality.   After an arduous process of grad school applications and a move across the US I am now at UCLA pursuing a PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology. Studying ants!
Gynandromorphgroup1

A collection of three of over 100 Vollenhovia emeryi gynandromorphs collected by R.M. Duffield and myself in Maryland last year. We are working on a manuscript at present to describe the colony structures of over 50 colonies (25,000+ individuals) collected over the past year. (more to come)

Aesthetically pleasing and accurate curation.

As a collections associate at the GMNH  I put some of my woodworking skills to use in order to combine my own aesthetic bias with the need for standardized ant curation, mainly pinning heights.  I  developed a few point mount pinning blocks and am loosely pursuing their production-to-sale in support of my outreach program ant museum. I am interested in obtaining feedback on 1) interest, 2) standardized pin heights specifically for multiply mounted ants.  Anybody else have point preferences?
All Photos Credit to Douglas Booher using an iphone or an iphone and a microscope.

pinning1

A.) Newspaper cut and placed on end allows pens to penetrate to point heights of 33mm, 30mm, and 27mm.    B.) Profile of point and label heights.    C.)Point, pen, and q-tip storage.    D.&E.) Travel size pinning block with newspaper pointing substrate.

 

Camponotus yogi

camponotusyogi Formicidae Formicinae Camponotus (Myrmaphaenus) yogi Wheeler

While exploring Cold Canyon Preserve near Calabasas, California I discovered  Camponotus yogi, an odd and cute carpenter ant.  These guys were nesting in the base of a dry yucca flowering stalk of a SW facing slope.  About 20 yards away  in a moist ravine closely related Camponotus clarithorax nested in a fallen and rotted oak branch.  As with many other cavity dwelling ants, i.e. Leptothorax, the actual occupied nesting area within the fallen branch was devoid of rot and fungus and quite dry. Both of these ants are endemics to California.

C. clarithorax Formicidae Formicinae Camponotus (Myrmentoma) clarithorax Creighton 1950a (following Ward 2005)