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.

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