Friday, September 25, 2015

An Oklahoma discovery


I’ve spent this summer studying South American ants, trying to figure out which species live where across the Guiana Shield.  But we can do the same thing closer to home.  For the past two years I’ve helped teach a General Entomology class where we teach students to do much the same type of work—collect specimens, identify them, and create a museum collection—right here in Oklahoma.

With a subtropical climate (in the southern part of the state at least) and a diverse mixture of eastern and western ecosystems, there’s a ton of insect diversity to be found.  And despite years of Entomology classes going to the same field sites year after year, every semester the students find something new and exciting.  Sometimes they even find something publishable.

Last year on a field trip to the OU Biological Station near the Texas border, a student brought me a lone worker of an ant species I didn’t recognize.  It turned out it was from a mostly tropical genus that had never before been recorded in Oklahoma.  A week later I brought two of my fellow grad students—Karl and Diane Roeder—to the same place and they found some of its nests.

Karl instantly recognized it as Leptogenys elongata—a specialist predator of isopods that is common in Central and South Texas but unknown this far north.  He soon realized that not only was it a new species for Oklahoma, but the genus as a whole had never been reported this far north anywhere in the New World!  Some Asian species range a bit farther north, but as far as the Americas are concerned this was the new record.


During a class field trip we found the predatory ant Leptogenys elongata living in Oklahoma, farther north in the Americas than any other species in the genus.  The specimen shown here is from much farther south near the Gulf Coast (photo by Michele Esposito, AntWeb).

Karl wrote up the results with all of us as co-authors, and the paper just came out yesterday in Southwestern Entomologist!  You can read it here for free.

It’s a reminder for students that our class (or any class) is about more than a grade.  And it emphasizes just how much there is left to discover, anywhere and anytime.


Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Rupununi revisited

My summer at the Smithsonian is nearing its end.  In a week or so I’ve got to be back in Oklahoma to help teach an entomology class.  But the past 13 weeks of work have really added up.

In the course of studying hundreds of ant species from across the Guiana Shield, I’ve been able to revisit my specimens from the South Rupununi Savanna in Guyana in 2013.  I’ve identified more species, corrected some old mistakes, and with Emma’s help captured amazing images of many of them.

The scavenger Ectatomma brunneum is found throughout northern South America, and we encountered it in the short grasslands of the Parabara Savanna.  I found this specimen while wandering along a sandy road on Halloween.

Just a few days later I collected this smooth shiny ant in a nearby riverside forest.  It’s Leptogenys gaigei, a fast-running predator that hunts isopods.

While many of the ants we collected are restricted to South America, some of them venture a little farther afield.  Rogeria foreli, like this one collected from leaf litter in the rocky dry forests at the base of Kusad Mountain, ranges all the way north through Central America to Arizona and New Mexico.

This pinkish fungus-gardener (Myrmicocrypta sp.) came from wetter forest a few hundred meters higher up Kusad’s slopes.

Thaumatomyrmex atrox is one of the world’s most distinctive predatory ants.  It uses its impressive pitchfork mandibles to hunt millipedes that are defended by long stiff hairs.  We collected this one in rainforest near the Waiwai village at Parabara landing.

I love it when a current adventure helps you to relive an old one.  It’s just one more reason to enjoy this summer.

But though my journey here is not quite over, I’m excited to return home to start my next one.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

A grassland surprise

The end of this week marks the halfway point my time here at the Smithsonian.  Our Guiana Shield project is humming along and the discoveries have continued.  It’s clear that all the expeditions to the Guiana Shield over the past decade and a half have been worth it.

Since most of the expeditions went to places that hadn’t previously been surveyed for ants, virtually all of the specimens represent new occurrence records.  Many of them also represent new country records.  And a few had never been collected from anywhere in the entire Guiana Shield.  And that’s not counting the dozens of undescribed species in the collections.

Here are just a few of the interesting specimens we’ve gone through over the past couple weeks.

The ridiculously cute Discothyrea sexarticulata is a specialist predator of spider eggs.  It’s a widespread species that occurs from Central America south to Paraguay, but until recently it was unknown from the Guiana Shield.  As far as I know, the first Guiana Shield records were a single individual collected in the Lely Mountains of eastern Suriname in 2005 and a specimen that we collected in rainforest near the Waiwai village at Parabara Landing in Guyana in 2013.



We collected this Discothyrea sexarticulata worker, the first record for the species in Guyana, in rainforest at the edge of the Rupununi Savanna in 2013.

The aptly named Anochetus horridus was for decades known only from Brazil.  Then in 2005 twelve specimens were collected from the Lely and Nassau Plateaus in eastern Suriname.  A subsequent expedition collected it again from Kasikasima Mountain in the southeastern part of the country.



The horrid trap-jaw ant (Anochetus horridus) nests in rotten logs and uses its fast-moving spiny mandibles like a bear-trap to capture prey.  This specimen from eastern Suriname represents the first Guiana Shield record for the species.


But my favorite find so far is from our expedition to the grasslands of the Rupununi.  Using pitfall traps in tall grassland at the foot of the Kusad Mountains we collected the rare Gnamptogenys ammophila.


The predatory ant Gnamptogenys ammophila is unique in being the only grassland specialist in its genus.  Until we collected this specimen in Guyana the species was known only from a small area in Venezuela.

Since it was first described in 1986 the species was known only from high altitude grasslands in a single watershed in the Gran Sabana of southeastern Venezuela.  Our find nearly 30 years later, 250 miles away at over 1,000 meters lower altitude, greatly extends the known range of this elusive species.

Leeanne and Samson and I—the Rupununi ant team—had no idea  two years ago, as we waded through that sea of grass waving flies away from our eyes, exactly what we would find.

Turns out it was pretty cool!

Friday, June 19, 2015

Guiana Shield discoveries

I’ve spent the past five weeks sorting through ant specimens at the Smithsonian.  It’s been slow and at times tedious, but rewarding.  We’re learning a ton and making interesting discoveries.  And as of last week our photography efforts are in full swing, providing me with endless material to share here on M2M.

We now have enough species identified and photographed that we can easily appreciate the diversity found in the Guiana Shield, even within a single genus.  The turtle ants (Cephalotes species) are one such case.  These heavily armored tree-dwellers come in a variety of shapes and colors.
Turtle ants (like this Cephalotes atratus) are easily recognized by their shield-shaped heads that they use to plug up their nest entrances in stems and branches  

We collected this C. atratus from the Parabara savanna in Guyana in 2013
I collected the smaller and hairier C. pusillus in the nearby Kusad Mountains on the same expedition…

…while this C. opacus came from the upper reaches of the Palumeu River in southeastern Suriname.
My new favorite turtle ant is the flat and pinkish Cephalotes persimilis.  Instead of spines, pearly translucent ridges extend along its sides.
Cephalotes persimilis is a savanna specialist that nests in scattered trees and riverside forests surrounded by grassland.  I collected this specimen from a lone tree in the Parabara savanna.  As far as we know, the wet Amazon Basin isolates the Rupununi population of this species from the rest of its species’ range over 1,000 miles away in dry areas of southern Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina.
I collected this C. minutus at night in our camp at the foot of the Kusad Mountains…
…and this aptly-named C. spinosus at the Kuyuwini River, while waiting to catch a canoe to the Waiwai village at Parabara Landing.

All this diversity is lovely, but my favorite find so far came earlier this week.  We found the first  Guiana Shield record of the oddly-shaped Dolichoderus inpai.  This species was previously known only from the Western Amazon in Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador, but our specimen is from 1,000 miles to the east in the Kasikasima Mountains in Southeastern Suriname.  Before this week, this specimen sat unrecognized in a tiny cardboard box, known to the world only as “Dolichoderus sp. 3.”

What’s even more exciting is that no publicly accessible image of the species exists, aside from partial line drawings in an identification key.
We believe this is the first photograph, and the first Guiana Shield record, of the odd Dolichoderus inpai.

It’s been an exciting five weeks.  I can’t wait to see what the rest of the summer has to offer.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Learning to photograph

This summer’s Guiana Shield project combines a lot of my favorite interests.   Not only does it involve geography, natural history, and a little conservation, but I get to take a broad view and work with entire ant communities.

The Guiana Shield is a big region with lots of habitats and hundreds (maybe thousands) of ant species.  And we get to study them all indiscriminately.

The big development this week is that we’ve finally started photographing the species.  Emma has been learning to use the microscope camera and the imaging software and her photographs are amazing.

The species we’ve photographed so far all came from my trip to Guyana's Southern Rupununi savanna in 2013.  But like the Guiana Shield in general, the diversity in form and lifestyle among just these first few specimens is stunning.


The tiny, fuzzy, and nearly blind Acropyga smithii lives its life underground away from the sunlight.  It makes a living by tending and feeding off of herds of root-sucking mealybugs.

At the opposite extreme, the gliding turtle ant Cephalotes atratus is large, spiny, and heavily armored.  It nests in trees and lives its life in the sunny rainforest canopy.  If a worker falls off a branch she can use her legs to glide through the air and return to her home tree and colony, rather than fall to the ground and face certain death alone on the forest floor.


Azteca species also live in trees.  They’re small, quick, and aggressively defend their territories from invaders by biting and spraying clouds of noxious chemicals.

Allomerus octoarticulatus takes plant-living to an extreme.  It nests inside of small cavities provided by specialized ant plants.  The ants are minuscule but have a powerful sting that is painful to any animal (even a human) that might disturb their host plant.


Back on the forest floor, leafcutter ants like Acromyrmex landolti survive by growing and harvesting fungus gardens.  To feed their fungus crop, they harvest vegetation from the surrounding area, chew it into a pulp, and place it in their gardens.

The largest leafcutters, like this Atta laevigata soldier, have scissor-like mandibles and massive head muscles for cutting through thick leaves.

The trap-jaw ant Anochetus bispinosus, in contrast, uses long thing mandibles with sharp curved teeth to capture and kill animal prey that it hunts in the leaf litter.

These are just six of the 400 or so species we hope to identify, map and photograph.  You may have noticed that we're proceeding in pseud-alphabetical order, and we're still at the beginning.

There’s a ton of diversity left to document.  I just hope we can finish it all.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Smithsonian for the summer

I’m doing something a little different this summer.  Instead of fieldwork like my fire ant project in northern Florida or my purple martin work in southeast Oklahoma, this summer is devoted to museum work.  I’ve got a small NSF grant to spend the summer at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.  The goal—to catalogue, photograph and map the ant species of the Guiana Shield.

I look forward to reconnecting this summer with some of my favorite natural areas around D.C., like Great Falls Park along the Potomac River

The Guiana Shield region of northern South America contains the world’s largest remaining area of unbroken tropical rainforest.  There’s one stretch where you could walk through 500 miles of the Amazon rainforest without crossing a road.  It’s also one of the world’s most biodiverse areas, chock full of species and indigenous human cultures.

This large and relatively intact region presents one of humanity’s last great opportunities to protect entire landscapes.  In many ways it’s also unexplored.  As far as ants go the rainforests and grasslands of the Guiana Shield are one of the richest and most poorly studied places on the planet.

That’s where we come in…sort of.

Over the past 15 years a few organizations have been working to study the ants of the Guiana Shield.  They’ve surveyed different sites to collect specimens, identify new species, and locate areas worthy of protection.  My expedition to the Southern Rupununi savanna in 2013 was part of that trend.  But the efforts have been piecemeal, conducted by different researchers working for different organizations with different goals.  The resulting specimens—the records of those expeditions—were likewise scattered in different places.

Over the past decade and a half several expeditions have surveyed ants from across the Guiana Shield

Now we’re bringing all those collections—hundreds of species from nearly 30 locations across Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana—together into one place.  And we’re working to combine all those different survey results into a single open access database, complete with high quality photographs of every species.   A list of regional ant species, along with a map of where they occur, would allow us to study evolutionary patterns across the Guiana Shield and help us better plan protected areas.

With that in mind, through the course of the summer we aim to catalogue, photograph, and map over 400 ant species collected from sites extending across 900 kilometers of the Guiana Shield.  It builds on my previous Suriname and Guyana work but is much, much bigger.  It just might be the most ambitious project I’ve undertaken in my scientific career, and I’ve got just over two months to finish it before I head back to Oklahoma in the fall.

Fortunately, I’ve got a lot of help.

I’m working in the lab of Ted Schultz, ant curator here at the Smithsonian.  He and his lab are lending us space, equipment, specimens and plenty of help.  I’m also getting some help from Leeanne Alonso, a specialist in biodiversity exploration who I’ve worked with on and off for two years now.

Aside from that, there’s a team of people working with me directly on the project—Tiago, Chris and Emma.  Tiago, a budding ant researcher, is an undergraduate from Brazil and one of my former entomology students at OU.  Chris is a neuroscience major here to learn a bit of taxonomy.  Finally, Emma, an undergraduate with a passion for science communication, is our resident photographer.  A few others may drift in and out during the summer.

It’s a great group of people.  This is my third week here at the Smithsonian and it’s already shaping up to be a productive summer.

Friday, April 24, 2015

My first fiction writing

M2M has been quiet for a couple weeks.  I’ve been working on some things here in Oklahoma and preparing for the summer.  But there has been one big development in my path from Marine to myrmecologist to…something else?

This semester I’ve been working on a secret project—fiction!  I wrote a short story and it just got published earlier this week in the journal Origins.  Now that it’s out there for the world to see, I suppose it’s no longer a secret.

The story—A Hedgehog in Bloom—follows an unnamed Marine linguist as he grapples with his role in a morally ambiguous war in an unfamiliar landscape.

Some of its themes may be familiar to M2M readers—place, language and nature—whereas others may be new—war, ethics and self-identity.

Although it draws on my experiences as a Marine in Iraq, please remember that the story is fictional.

You can view an online version of the whole journal here, and a free pdf of just my story here.

I hope you enjoy it!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Murchison Falls

I haven’t posted much the past couple weeks.  I’ve been working to finish labwork and a manuscript before heading out for this summer’s project.  I suppose this is as good a time as any to finally conclude my Uganda trilogy from 2012.  When I last left off I had arrived with two fellow travelers—Sasha and James—at the small town of Karuma on the south bank of the Nile where it flows through a series of rapids.

The first time I passed through Karuma, with Nicholas, I nearly got arrested by some soldiers for photographing the falls on the Nile.  Supposedly, it was all to keep people from taking pictures of the military base that guarded the south bank just outside of town.

Now, my second time in Karuma, I got my revenge on the soldiers in an act of micro-rebellion.  James and Sasha and I, by walking a trail through some agricultural fields, found our way to a secluded spot on the bank of the river right between the infantry barracks in town and the base with the artillery, without ever sneaking past a single sentry.  We then took all the photos of Karuma Falls we wanted.  It’s pretty bad when three foreigners can easily get between you and what you're supposed to be guarding.

James and Sasha and I were able to photograph the Nile all we wanted by simply walking around the soldiers who guarded the view



Near the military base we came across this raiding column of driver ants (Dorylus sp.)

After Karuma, our goal was Murchison Falls NP, the largest in Uganda.  Nicholas had left us to return to Kampala, and without a vehicle we knew we couldn't really explore the park the way we wanted to.  But there was also a challenge—somehow, get from here to there.  Aren't those the best missions, just get from A to B?

We found a pickup truck heading west toward the Congolese border, and got rides in the back for about three dollars apiece.  It was a cold, overcast, misty morning, and we raced along at around 70 mph stuffed into the bed of the truck with some supplies, construction tools, two women, a baby, an older man, a mechanic, and three Ugandan soldiers in civvies on their way to a funeral.  The three soldiers huddled in camouflage jackets and ponchos, but I, of course, thickheaded as I am, wanted to look tough for the Ugandans.  I'm from Cleveland, the land of ice and snow and eternal darkness, and I wore only my shorts and a skivvy shirt.

I was cold, but the scenery was amazing as we traveled for over 100 km through open savanna, broken only by an occasional village.  Having the soldiers on board turned out to be useful, because police tried to stop and question our driver at every checkpoint.  We could only assume the extra scrutiny came from having three obvious foreigners in the bed of the truck.  But every time we were stopped, the three soldiers warded the police off.

We eventually reached, and crossed, the Nile yet again where it flows northward at the town of Pakwach.  There we hired three boda-bodas—small motorcycles—to take us the 25 km to the center of Murchison Falls National Park.  While I don’t think it is illegal, entering the park by boda-boda is discouraged because of the danger from buffalo and other large animals.  I admit now that that advice is well-grounded.

We rode on the backs of our boda-bodas into the park.  The dirt road wound through a vast savanna of elephant grass, Borassus palms and large grazing herds.  Oribi and Uganda kob bounded across the road meters in front of us as we drove, while warthogs, Jackson's hartebeest, and buffalo watched us from the sides.  No buffalo charged us, but we passed one aggressive one that snorted as we passed. When we finally arrived at the guard house to check in, a ranger scolded us for riding through the savanna exposed on boda-bodas instead of in a truck.  But though it was dangerous, that motorcycle ride through herds of large animals was one of the highlights of my trip.  When it comes down to it, I enjoyed getting to the park more than being in the park itself.

Murchison Falls is not just Uganda’s largest national park.  It’s also where Ernest Hemingway and his wife survived two plane crashes over the course of a couple days in 1954.  What attracted Hemingway here, and most visitors since, are the falls themselves—a narrow gorge that the Nile shoots through in a chaotic roar.


We took a boat up the Nile to view the falls and the wildlife along the way





Grazing hippos were common along this stretch of the Nile...


 ...as were Nile crocodiles

The next day we hiked to the top of the falls to get the view from above



We parted ways with Sasha in the village of Ziwa southeast of the park.  She was in a hurry to get to Kampala, and James and I weren’t ready to return to the city.  There was one place we still wanted to visit.  Outside of Ziwa is a heavily guarded preserve where a few white rhinos have been reintroduced after being extirpated from the country.  They are the only wild rhinos in all Uganda.

James and I made our way to the sanctuary, where we teamed up with Slovenian couple, Neya and Luca.  Neya was a biology and sustainability teacher at a high school in Ljubljana, and Luca was a nature and travel photographer and instructor.  We hit it off discussing our shared experiences in Tanjung Puting National Park in Borneo, and they let us tag along as the toured the preserve.

The reintroduced southern white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum simum) at the Ziwa sanctuary are the only wild rhinos in Uganda

The Ziwa sanctuary also gave us a close encounter with Uganda’s national bird, the grey crowned crane (Balearica regulorum)

Neya and Luca offered to give us a ride all the way from Ziwa to Entebbe, a day's journey.  At first they were only to take us a few kilometers to the main road in Ziwa, but when we got to Ziwa, a single line of dirty shops along the highway, a look of disgust and disbelief passed over Luca's face.  He was pessimistic about our chances of getting a lift from there, and I he and Neya felt like they couldn't in good conscience leave us at such a desolate place.  So they offered to drive us the whole way.

Here in Entebbe, I am to start the Ant Course, my official reason for coming to Uganda, tonight.  My travel in Uganda is basically over.  I have said goodbye to Sasha and James and Neya and Luca.  I had a great time learning about the exciting world of photojournalism from Sasha, and will miss James' rants about British politics and the decline of the Euro.  The Ugandan people are overly friendly, and I've only rarely felt in any danger.  The food is great, transportation is easy, assuming you don't care about comfort or space, and the landscape just fits.  Of course, the Biology is indescribable.

But the biggest news in Uganda right now is the Ebola outbreak in the west.  Every day the numbers climb.  The center of the outbreak is around 50 miles from where I'll be spending the next two weeks, although people have died as far away as Kampala, the capital.  I will be fine.  I'll be in the forest anyway, away from towns.  So, assuming everything works out, I will see you all when I return to the US!