Friday, February 21, 2014

Wing photography

My flight research requires that I get intimate with ant queens.

The work is a mixture of ecology, evolution and flight mechanics.  I study how a queen’s ability to fly (flight mechanics) affects her ability to mate, disperse and survive (her ecology), and how that in turn drives changes in a species’ biology (evolution).

To try and figure any of this out, I have to measure a lot of queens.

I get a close look at ant queens, like this Dolichoderus laminatus from Panama

Lately I’ve been working on all those fire ant queens I collected in Florida.  In a series of experiments in our kitchen and dining room, my friend Aaron and I got a bunch of them to fly and measured their performance.

Well, now it’s time to measure all those queens so we can see how their morphology (their wings and flight muscles and such) affects their flight.  It can be tedious—I have to measure queens under the microscope, dissect them into little pieces, weigh a few body parts and calculate some stuff.

And I photograph their wings.  In the past two and a half years I’ve looked at thousands of wings from hundreds of queens representing dozens of species.  Most of the photographs aren’t very good.  I’m usually in a hurry and care more about function than art.  The photos are good enough for me to measure the wings, but not that pleasant to look at.  But every once in a while I take a decent one in spite of myself.


Each queen has four wings, two forewings and two hindwings.  Here I’ve photographed a pair from a fire ant (Solenopsis invicta) collected in Florida

I find this development as surprising as anyone.  I like to imagine what a younger version of myself—say, Corporal Helms translating Arabic in western Iraq—would think of me now.  If you’d asked him how he’d be making a living in the future, I don’t think he’d have said he’d be a wing photographer.

And then, of course, I wonder what I’ll do next, which is a much scarier question.

Friday, February 14, 2014

My first paper

M2M has been quiet for a couple weeks.  I took a break after finishing the Rupununi series to visit family.  But now I’ve returned to Oklahoma and am ready to get moving again.

I’ve been back in the US four months now.  Insofar as this blog is meant to show what I—a former Marine/budding biologist—actually do, I give it a failing grade.  For almost a year now almost all the entries have been about fieldwork, ignoring everything else.

Fieldwork lends itself to storytelling.  It’s easy to convey through photographs and videos, and the outdoors and the organisms that live there excite people’s imaginations.  It’s one of my favorite parts of the job.  I enjoy writing about it and the reader (I hope) picks up on my enthusiasm.

But in reality fieldwork takes up a minority of my time (depending on how you calculate it, somewhere between a sixth and a fourth of the working year).   With that in mind, it’s clear that M2M is not representative.

And it might stay that way.  I’ll try to write occasionally about how I spend the other 75-85% of the year.  But let’s face it—sometimes that stuff’s just not as exciting.

But this week I do have some good news.  I’ve published my first lead-author paper!  You can view it free here.

The paper—my first dissertation chapter—brings up another deficiency of M2M.  Except for my Florida posts from summer 2013, most entries involve side projects that have little to do with my dissertation research.

The bulk of my work involves a series of questions about ant flight.  How do queens move from place to place before starting a new colony?  What flight related tradeoffs do they experience?  How does flight drive queen evolution?  Do different species fly differently?  How does flight relate to other aspects of an ant’s ecology?

These questions, and others like them, are my bread and butter.  I work on them everyday and think about them in bed at night.  This paper is the first of a series of projects trying to get at the answers.

Working on these problems can be fun.  Piecing together the puzzle is as thrilling as exploring a new place.  But it’s harder to capture this type of exploration in a photograph...

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Goodbye, Guyana

It’s time to end my Rupununi series.  Many stories remain untold.  M2M’s purpose, however, is not to detail everything, but to provide useful snapshots.  Perhaps the remaining bits will pop up in the future.  I’ve enjoyed reliving the Rupununi trip, just as I enjoyed the experience itself.

We packed up and left the savanna.  We parted with most of the Rupununi locals in Shulinab village.  Samson and I said our goodbyes, and the rest of us continued to Lethem and left for Georgetown the next day.

There was, of course, the usual bingeing after returning from the field—restaurants, showers, beer, sleep… but there was also work.

We held a press conference about the expedition.  In a (possibly futile) attempt to make some of us presentable, WWF gave us clean shirts to wear.  We took a few minutes each to present our results to reporters.  In the field I had little idea anyone even knew we were there, and the positive reception was a welcome surprise.


Despite a few inaccuracies, we received favorable coverage in the Guyanese press.

We spent another week and a half in the capital preparing specimens for shipping, filing for export permits, and writing preliminary reports for WWF.

A few of us gave guest lectures at the University.  Burton took students bat netting in the botanical gardens, and Don and Matt gave them a tour of the University’s fish collection.  Leeanne and I taught a course on ant ecology.  I gave a short talk and then took students outside to collect on campus, while Leeanne helped them identify ants they brought back to the lab.  Leeanne finished with a discussion about conservation.  Of course, some of the students were those I had gotten to know on the expedition, but there were many new faces as well.


Some of us taught guest courses at the University of Guyana after the trip.  Here, Leeanne talks to students about ants and conservation.

And then it was over.  I said goodbye to my Guyanese friends and the other expedition members and flew home to Oklahoma.

Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to return someday.

 The team at our Kusad camp (courtesy of Leeanne Alonso)