Saturday, 8 November 2008

Another picture from Cromhall

I was concentrating on the sawfly at the time, but I think it is the fly that draws the eye in this photograph. I don't think I realised how attractive it was at the time - it's just a fly after all.

I think the sawfly is a species of Athalia (see comment). At one point it would have been easy to identify it as A. rosae, but it appears that there may have been some revisions to the genus. My best guess is that this common Athalia is now known as A. circularis, but it's not clear as my books don't adequately cover sawflies and most of the internet sources evidently haven't caught up. Perhaps someone can tell me?

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Things that aren't wasps

Though it wasn't my intention to begin with, this neatly follows on from Bug Girl's posts Things that aren’t bees (#1) and (#2).

One of my colleagues spotted both male and female Phasia hemiptera along the road at work, so the next day I brought in my camera to try to get some photographs of what is probably one of the UK's prettiest flies. I've since discovered that very few photographs of P. hemiptera do justice to the iridescent blue on the wings, so I don't feel quite so bad about failing to get any photographs over two consecutive days.

Instead I spent my time photographing the abundance of other insects, mainly on hogweed Heracleum sphondylium. Chief among these were hoverflies (Syrphidae), including the species below. Now that colder weather is setting in I'm getting around to dealing with the images.

I'm not an expert and I did not get any of the hoverflies photographed under a microscope, so don't rely on these identifications!

The most abundant hoverfly was Syrphus. I'm certain that I saw female Syrphus ribesii, so I'm assuming that this male (right) is also S. ribesii.

Also present on one day was a male Syrphus with a twisted abdomen (left). Sadly it did not pose especially well, but the shot does show the distorted abdominal tergites. I thought at the time that it might be a stylops, but they do not appear to parasitize flies at all.

Rather similar, but not as common, was Dasysyrphus albostriatus. The individual to the right is a female and shows the distinctive lines on the thorax that provide its name.


Probably the prettiest species present with regular stripes on the abdomen was Eupeodes luniger. This female (left) looked like a flying jewel in the sunshine, with a bluish sheen to the black areas on the abdomen.

Scaeva pyrastri (male, right) has more white or cream coloured stripes on the abdomen.

Another very common hoverfly in the UK, so common in fact that it has a English name, is the marmalade hoverfly Episyrphus balteatus (male left). This is possibly one of the most distinctive hoverflies in the UK, due to the overall shape and the double stripes on each abdominal tergite.

Also very distinctive is Chrysotoxum bicinctum, as it seems to be the only British species with two stripes on the abdomen as shown on the female on the right. I think that C. bicinctum is one of the few species that does a convincing job of looking like a wasp. This is on yarrow Achillea millefolium, rather than hogweed.

Finally, there was Xylota sylvarum. If I had seen this before then I obviously haven't been paying enough attention, as it is large, glossily hairy and attractive, if a little lumbering (there is also the smaller but similar X. xanthocnema). I fell in love with this female so there are two photographs (below, left and right)!

Friday, 17 October 2008

Entomophthora muscae

The largest part of the autumn fungus fruiting season may have passed in the UK, or at least where I live, but there are still a few things around, if you're prepared to look closely for them.

Yes, it's a fly (I don't know which species), but it is a fly with a fungal parasite, Entomophthora muscae. The fungus grows inside the fly, eventually reaching the fly's brain and influencing its behaviour. The fungus needs to get as high as possible to ensure reproductive success, so it forces the fly to climb to the top of a flower, twig or, as in this case, blade of grass and then makes it hold tight. In some cases I've even seen fungal hyphae around the flies proboscis and legs where the fungus has apparently anchored its host (though I suppose this could be a secondary infection in older specimens). The fungus then kills the fly and bursts through its abdomen to shed its spores. These spores are picked up by the wind to infect the next generation of flies.

E. muscae isn't rare by any means, but it does seem to be overlooked. It also seems to be most abundant as it starts to get wetter in autumn, so I find it most years at about this time. Nevertheless, I have very rarely found as perfect a specimen as this.

I know there won't be many others who share this opinion, but I do think that E. muscae is rather awesome.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Blog Action Day: Poverty

This year Blog Action Day is about poverty. 'Keep your post related to your regular blog topic' they say.

However, linking ants to poverty seems impossible. The best I could come up with was a video criticism of a Neocon version of the parable of the ant and the grasshopper which, whilst true, is not exactly interesting or relevant. So I'm moving up to the overarching theme of biodiversity, as there are many links between biodiversity and poverty.


Money is so often made at the expense of the natural world, most often not by locals, who are exploited just as badly as the environment in which they live. However, it doesn't always have to be like this. Anyone who's been watching Bruce Parry's Amazon (which should be everyone, as it's brilliant) will know about the Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve, within which local communities are encouraged to live sustainably. The local communities feel that being part of the programme operating within the reserve benefits them and increases their quality of life.

Last year, the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) published a report entitled Biodiversity and Poverty Reduction; The importance of biodiversity for ecosystem services. I'd recommend reading the summary of this report at least. It lists some of the ecosystem services on which the poor are particularly dependent, including:
  • 'Varied diet (including flavourings and micronutrients), famine foods and food security - provided directly by components of biodiversity that are consumed, and through a wide range of biodiversity that is crucial for food production, including that involved in the services of pollination, pest and disease control, and soil fertility.
  • Water quality and availability (including regulation of flooding events), and erosion control - affected variously by vegetative cover at local and landscape scales.
  • Medicines and health, both through the supply of natural medicines, and through the regulation of infections and emerging diseases.
  • Cultural values, closely tied in many societies to components of biodiversity, typically at the species or landscape level.'

One of the main points that the report makes is that the rich can 'buy-in' services when ecosystems stop providing them. The poor cannot do this, so are much more dependent upon greater diversity through a heterogeneous local environment.

Combating both poverty and the loss of biodiversity are two of the greatest challenges to face us in the 21st Century, so it is good that the two are not mutually exclusive. What will probably have to change are current economic policies, as these generally operate at the expense of the poor and biodiversity - though, given the current global financial crisis, maybe now is the time for significant change anyway. Ultimately, we as citizens of rich nations have to make a decision about which is important: other members of our species and the world in which we live, or money. Only one of these will not matter when we are gone.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Absolute genius

This is The BossHoss. Really gimmicky, but genius nonetheless.



If that's not enough, check out their versions of 'Hey Ya!', 'Toxic' and a number of other covers. Before there are any accusations of selling out (which might otherwise be justified) I should point out that they're German.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Harpagoxenus sublaevis

My parents collected some ants from Austria in June. I was pleased to find that the first tube I looked in contained this little beast.

Harpagoxenus sublaevis is interesting in that, despite its relatively small size, it is a 'slave-maker'. In this instance it was apparently using Leptothorax acervorum as slaves, though it also enslaves L. muscorum and L. gredleri.

Describing ants as slave-makers is generally a misuse of the term, as it's only possible to enslave members of the same species. Instead, myrmecologists have given this form of social parasitism its own name: dulosis.

H. sublaevis conducts raids on Leptothorax colonies, carrying larvae and pupae away to rear as slaves. This can be quite drawn out process, as H. sublaevis recruits through tandem running, so it can take quite a while until there are enough H. sublaevis workers to conduct the raid. During the raid, H. sublaevis produces a propaganda pheromone, which causes the Leptothorax workers to attack one another, rather than the intruders. Nevertheless, H. sublaevis is heavily built, with antennal scrobes into which antennae can be drawn and straight edged mandibles that can be used for shearing through the appendages of attacking Leptothorax.

The evolutionary origins of dulosis in ants still has a lot of questions that need answering. There are three main hypotheses for the origin of slave-making:
  • Predation: This was the only possible origin for slave-making suggested by Darwin in the Origin of Species. In essence, he suggested that slave-making emerged when one colony raids another colony and steals brood to be used as food. If any of the brood were allowed to survive then these would be adopted as slaves within the host colony. There is currently no evidence for this as the prime mover leading to slavery.
  • Territoriality: This hypothesis suggests that territorial aggression between neighbouring colonies, and the stealing of rival brood for food, led to some captured brood to be allowed to survive to adulthood and be accepted as nestmates. There is some evidence in support of this hypothesis.
  • Transport: This was originally suggested by Buschinger. He suggested that slave-making may originate from transporting brood between nests in polydomous (multi-nest) colonies. If this was extended to other colonies then it could lead to an early version of slave-raiding. Again, there is little evidence in support of this theory.
None of these hypotheses are fully convincing. For example, none of them explain the aggressive usurpation of host workers and queens. However, they are not mutually exclusive, so it may be a combination of these and other factors that led to the evolution of slave-making.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

31 Today

This seems appropriate today. I wonder why.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

That's one important ant!

I don't normally just link to ant related news without having something to say myself. However, I think that Martialis heureka warrants making an exception.

Myrmecos does a good summary of the story, with some nice photos. Other good coverage is at ScienceDaily, Nature News and Discover. The paper is available from PNAS, at a cost, though the abstract is available for free.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Separating Lasius niger and Lasius platythorax workers

By popular request! Well, one person requested it anyway.

Lasius niger and Lasius platythorax are undoubtedly hard to separate. This becomes particularly difficult when you find specimens that seem to be somewhere in between. However, it is always possible to assign them to one species or another, with a bit of work.

First of all, L. niger and L. platythorax are small dark brown Lasius with outstanding hairs on their antennal scapes. In the UK there are no other species that have these characteristics, though in Europe it gets a little more complicated1.

Some people seem to base identification of the workers of these species on one or two characteristics. However, experience has taught me that it is usually more reliable to use all of the following:
  • Density of pubescence on the clypeus
  • Shape of propodeum in profile
  • Setae length on the mesosoma
  • Shape of clypeus in profile
These are all shown in the photomontages. I have, on occasion, also felt the need to use the length of the setae on the underside of the head, but I can usually identify these species reliably without this and the setae are difficult to measure.

Probably the most useful character is the clypeal pubescence. Quite often this can be visually assessed, with practice, though on occasions an entire nest series will have moderate clypeal pubescence and have to be assessed morphometrically. To do this you use a measuring line, as shown below. Measure the length of this line in µm (l) and then count the number of hairs that intersect it (n). Seifert (2007) gives the average distance between the hairs (l/n) for L. niger as <16µm and for L. platythorax as >19µm.

Clypeal pubescence in Lasius niger. Measuring line shown in red.

Clypeal pubescence in Lasius platythorax. Measuring line shown in red.

Whilst you're looking at the clypeus it's worth noting its shape in profile. Typically, L. niger has a rather curved clypeus, whilst in L. platythorax it is comparatively straight. The idea that they differ has been floating around in BWARS for a couple years now, though I must admit I'm one of the last to accept that this is probably a good character. I feel like I've now seen enough and have not been able to dispute it - plus Barry Bolton is apparently using it, so it must be good!

Check the shape of the propodeum in profile. In L. niger the propodeum tends to be a smoothly rounded dome, whilst in L. platythorax it tends to be more conical in shape.

Finally, look at the relative length of the setae on the mesosoma, especially the pronotum. In L. platythorax these setae tend to be distinctly longer. Seifert (2007) gives figures for the length of the longest setae on the pronotum divided by the length of the head as 0.119±0.009 in L. niger and 0.159±0.010 in L. platythorax.

The two species have distinct ecological preferences. L. niger prefers drier habitats and has synanthropic tendencies - this is the species that sometimes invades houses. L. platythorax prefers wetter conditions, and is usually the species found in woodland and wet grasslands.

I've also started noticing that the larvae in L. platythorax seem to be more slender than in L. niger. Of course, this is based wholly on my subjective observations, but might be a good indicative field character.

NB: The photomontages are of British specimens2 that show generally typical characteristics. However, both specimens show setae on the propodeum that curve forward, which is not typical. In the Scottish L. platythorax, which were collected in atypical habitat at their most northern known location in the UK, the entire series had curved forward propodeal setae.



1 American L. niger are most likely a different species again, as the images I have seen do not have the dense clypeal pubescence of L. niger, but do not appear to be L. platythorax either.
2 To be honest, I don't think that them being British matters - if anything I find the characteristics of these species to overlap more in the UK than in mainland Europe. However, I know some British myrmecologists who get funny about such things!

New title bar

It only took two hours of fiddling to get it right.

For those who care, the species used for the mugshots are, from left to right:

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Focus stacking ant images

I wish I had the kind of technology that the guys at AntWeb have for taking photographs. They use Automontage to focus stack the images, ensuring that everything is in focus. The principle of focus stacking is that you take photographs with different parts of the subject in focus and then use the software to combine the in-focus bits of all the images to create a new image.

The big issue for me is the cost, as the technology involved is pricey. The photographs that I take at the moment are done in a very low-tech way with what is now a rather dated camera, but it seems to work without costing the earth.

I recently read an article on tardigrades in British Wildlife, in which the author discussed briefly the technology he uses for photographing these tiny beasts. It turns out that you can focus stack images on the cheap, with two software packages freely available: Helicon Focus (for Macs) and CombineZP (for Windows).

I've had a bash at producing some stacked ant images in CombineZP. It's fair to say that the process involved is incredibly fiddly, time consuming and computer memory hungry, with the images produced rather variable. However, it does work fairly well, once you've learnt to keep the camera completely still whilst taking the images.

I know some people dislike focus stacking, because it makes images appear flat, so I thought I'd put CombineZP to the test.

The following photographs are of British Lasius niger (it's worth clicking on the images to view larger versions). Image 1 is the best of the original images used to create the composites below:

CombineZP produced two images (from nine original images), using different stacking techniques, that were of reasonable quality. Image 2 is perhaps the closest to the original and was produced using Pyramid Maximum Contrast methodology:

Image 3 uses Pyramid Weighted Average methodology:

I have my own thoughts on which I prefer, but I thought I'd put it to the vote:

Which of the above images is best?
  
pollcode.com free polls

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Hygrocybe intermedia

One of the few things that the UK seems to do really well is waxcaps (Hygrocybe sp.). They are one of the more spectacular groups of fungi, coming in a range of very vivid colours. In Europe they are associated with grasslands, though elsewhere in the world they tend to occur in woodlands.

The first time I encountered Hygrocybe intermedia was in 2000, on the sand dunes just a few metres from Sizewell nuclear power station in Suffolk. At the time, the species was listed on the provisional UK red data list for fungi. Although it has since been removed, it's evidently not that common, with only 410 records on the Fungal Records Database of Britain and Ireland.

This specimen was found at Brown Robin, a Cumbria Wildlife Trust reserve near Grange over Sands, where H. intermedia was the most abundant fruiting fungus present. As fungi go, it is an unmistakable waxcap, in the Northern Europe at least, due to it's colour, squamulose pileus (cap) and fibrillose stipe (stem).

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Invertebrates from Leighton Moss

I visited Leighton Moss RSPB reserve on Saturday.

It wouldn't be surprising if over 99% of visitors go to Leighton Moss for birds, with the remainder going for dragonflies, but I'm afraid I tend to find this sort of birding boring. On the whole, I'd much rather have the birds up close and personal, even if it is just European starlings on a bird feeder. The one exception to the general reserve experience was when I visited Inner Marsh Farm for work on a day when it was closed to the public. On this day I ate my lunch in the hide in the absence of birders (who are a funny bunch) and had water rail and other waders literally metres away.

What excited me about Leighton Moss was the flora and the invertebrates.

One of the things that I've known about for a long time, but saw for the first time, was the alder moth caterpillar Acronicta alni (though I will admit that it was my brother that remembered the name). The alder moth is a widespread species, but the caterpillars are rarely seen, as they apparently spend much of their time in the canopy of various tree species, on which they feed. However, the final instars of the caterpillar are fantastic, looking like something more suited to the tropics than wet-and-dreary UK.

The other rather special observation was the bug Pictomerus bidens feeding on a caterpillar. I had seen this species before in Cornwall, but had never found it feeding. It actually came as quite a surprise, as I had not realised that it was carnivorous!

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Mapping ant colonies

A colleague of mine forwarded this to me last week, but I went away and haven't had chance to deal with it properly until now.

Researchers at Texas A&M University used Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) to map a colony of Atta texana, producing a 3D model of the tunnels and chambers. It's all very clever and has the advantage of being non-invasive.

I've seen some of the models that Walter Tschinkel has produced and they are very attractive (and scientifically valuable). However, these models do result in the destruction of the colony and can be very time consuming to produce. By using GPR the colony is not destroyed.

Whilst I think that this is a great step forward, I doubt how well it can be implemented in the short term. The trouble is, whilst A. texana colonies are big, most ant colonies are small with narrow tunnels, and I doubt that the GPR would be sensitive to pick up all the finer details. Maybe in the future, if the sensitivity of the equipment improves, this technique will become more valuable. It's also much harder to visualise the colony without an actual physical model, though no doubt these could be created at additional cost if needed.

It will be interesting to see how this develops (and how the technology can be used in other fields - mapping European badger Meles meles setts for a start). More information is available on the project website.

I also followed a link from the BBC web page this was reported on and discovered that a friend of mine has made the news, again... (Show off.)

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Swedish Made Simple

Most days I have inane songs stuck in my head. However, for most of today it has been 'F.U.N.E.X?' that has been haunting my thoughts.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Witness to a birth... sort of

Seven weeks ago (to the day) I found a Lasius queen in a soil claustral cell beneath some moss in a woodland.

I don't make a habit of collecting Lasius queens to rear colonies from - they are two-a-penny in the UK (only slightly more expensive than a-dime-a-dozen at todays exchange rate) and the workers are marvellous escapologists, making them difficult to keep.

However, this queen looked like a Lasius flavus queen, so I thought she might be something more interesting since woodland is not the normal habitat for L. flavus. I collected the queen and the soil of the cell surrounding her and placed everything in a tube.

She had remained in that tube until yesterday, when I decided it was time to investigate why I hadn't seen any activity for about three weeks. Of course, this meant that when I discovered the queen and brood and two callow workers it was too late to get them back in the tube, so I had to find them some alternative accommodation in a plaster nest.

I left them to settle into the plaster nest, checking on them every couple of hours. Then in the early evening I counted not two but three workers, so I decided that I would take them into work today, so that I could keep an eye on them.

I'm glad I did. Not a lot happened until 16:00 when, as I was moving to get a drink, I spotted activity. The queen was licking what was obviously an emerging adult ant. The other workers were also showing an above normal level of excitement (i.e. they were moving, rather than just standing over the brood). The queen continued to lick this fourth worker for about 30 minutes, until she left it, twitching, presumably to harden its cuticle.

This was very exciting for me, as in ten years of studying ants it was something I had never before witnessed. To be fair, I've only been keeping ants for about a year and it's the sort of thing that you need to be in the right place at the right time to see.

Once I got them home, at around about 18:00, there was a fifth ant! They are yellow, so I'm becoming more convinced that they are just the common L. flavus, but they're entertaining me.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

New species

I honestly can't remember the last time a new species of invertebrate was found in the UK (excluding bacteria from the definition). That makes it quite an event when something as significant as a slug is found, sort of the British equivalent of the Vu Quang ox.

The slug was described by specialists at the National Museum of Wales and Cardiff University, who named it Selenochlamys ysbryda, after ysbryd, the Welsh word for ghost. The beast is subterranean, lacking pigmentation and blind. It spends its time eating earthworms.

Sadly though, S. ysbryda is probably not native to the UK, as its nearest relatives live in the mountains of eastern Europe, Georgia and eastern Turkey. Because it may have invaded British shores, the National Museum of Wales are seeking any additional records, to see how widespread it is, and have provided an identification guide.

More information can be found at the National Museum of Wales website and BBC News.

Temnothorax saxonicus

It's been too long since I last added anything to this blog, so it is a shame that I write this in the middle of fixing a(nother) mistake. I originally thought this specimen was Temnothorax nylanderi, collected well outside of its known range, and had started to pursue this, involving other people.

Instead it is Temnothorax saxonicus and I'm feeling quite sheepish. What's especially silly is that I collected T. saxonicus again just down the road from this specimen and had no problem with the identification.

I had taken these photographs and was sorting them out when I realised that the head was the wrong shape for T. nylanderi. On checking my measurements I discovered that I had originally incorrectly measured the head width. Thus, instead of the head length being less than 1.090 times the head width, the head was longer, which clearly made this T. saxonicus.

T. saxonicus is a rarity in Germany and is listed as 'highly endangered' (RLD2). The only place I collected it was just west of Poikham, Bavaria, though there is a slim chance that I may have other specimens unidentified. Seifert has told me that he expects this species in any comparable habitat along the river Donau (Danube).

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Ustilago maydis

Always on the look out for something really weird, in 2006 I found this grotesque thing. The general impression is of a set of giant rotting teeth.

It didn't take much tracking down. Many fungi are host specific, so if you can tell what the fungus is growing on you stand a chance of identifying it. This rises to a good chance when the fungus is as distinctive as this. In this case the host was maize Zea mays and the fungus is maize smut Ustilago maydis. The fungus was growing on the cobs.

Though U. maydis is common in North America, it's very rare in the UK. This was only the ninth time that it had been recorded. It's unlikely to be overlooked, so it's probably genuinely rare. The field it was found in had Z. mays growing with other exotic grasses that had obviously been sown for game cover. As a result, I suspect that the field had not been sprayed with fungicides that would ordinarily prevent U. maydis from growing.

Apparently, in North America U. maydis has traditionally been, and is still considered by some, to be a good edible fungus. In fact I read that some cultures prize the fungus more than the sweetcorn. Would you eat this?

Saturday, 21 June 2008

I ♥ morphometrics

Put simply, morphometrics is 'measuring shapes'. In the normal, biological context this refers to the shape of study organisms. It is used by the taxonomist as a way of determining species boundaries.

Not long after I first encountered morphometrics I found myself working on tricky Lasius sp., which meant that I had to try to make sense of Seifert (1992). Seifert seems to be the Master of Morphometrics, in Europe at least, and the measurements and indices he uses are much more complicated than I had encountered up until that point. At first I really hated them. I couldn't understand why identification of Lasius needed to be so complicated - couldn't the species be better described and thus made easier to identify?

Over time morphometrics have grown on me and I've come to really appreciate them. I now even understand most of what Seifert does, though I will admit to being lost by some of the discriminants that he uses!

The most recent and one of the cleverest morphometric tools that I've encountered is from Seifert (2007), for separating the Formica picea/gagatoides/gagates group from the F. fusca/lemani group. I had already decided that the specimen that I was working on was F. fusca and knew that it definitely wasn't from the picea/gagatoides/gagates group, as these are all much shinier. However, in the couplet for separating the two groups I spotted an index that I had not encountered before: sqPDF.

Translating as best I can from the German, sqPDF is the square root of the distance between individual pubescence hairs within the triangle formed by the ocelli. PDF = l/n; where n = number of the pubescence hairs that intersect three transverse measuring lines of overall length l. The position of these measuring lines is shown in red in the picture below.


The thing that I found so intriguing about this is the pubescence hairs are extremely small, so I decided to see if I could make sqPDF work. I measured the length of the three lines combined to be 663µm and counted 68 hairs intersecting the three lines. This gave a PDF of 9.75µm, so the sqPDF was 3.12µm. This is within the range given for F. fusca/lemani (sqPDF 2.4-3.5µm) and outside of the range given for F. picea/gagatoides/gagates (spPDF 3.6-10.8µm), so the calculation worked!

This might seem like a lot of work, but it's not. Morphometrics are indisputable. I know from experience that you can get to the end of a key based on descriptions alone and be less than convinced that you've got the right answer. You then spend hours checking the other 'possibilities' had you taken different routes through the key. Morphometrics eliminate much of the doubt, give you a nice, neat, believable answer and ultimately save time.

If and when I finally write my first key, expect to see lots of numbers in the couplets!

Saturday, 14 June 2008

German ant collections

Another place visited; another list of ants collected. This time the area covered is a small part of Bavaria, as a result of a visit to the University of Regensburg. This list will develop over the next few weeks, as I have numerous specimens to look at. Once I have identified everthing I will send a full list of the records to the university and to any other interested parties.

It is possible to accurately identify some of the species listed in the field, so not all were actually collected. Some of them were collected by Marion Füßl, who found many species before I did and thus proved to be a very useful person to have around! Others were collected with a group of researchers from the university, who very kindly spent their public holiday showing me around. Yet more were collected by Christiane Wanke over the past few years and passed to me to identify.

Though I was not aiming specifically to collect rare species, the letters in red relate to species the German Red Data List (from: Seifert, 2007).

Dolichoderinae
     Dolichoderus
          quadripuntatus RLD3
Formicinae
     Camponotus
          ligniperda
     Formica
          cunicularia
          fusca
          pratensis
          rufa
          rufibarbis
          sanguinea
     Lasius
          alienus
          brunneus 1
          emarginatus
          flavus
          fuliginosus
          niger
          platythorax
     Plagiolepis
          vindobonensis RLD2
Myrmicinae
     Leptothorax
          acervorum
     Myrmecina
          graminicola
     Myrmica
          lobicornis RLD3
          rubra
          ruginodis
          rugulosa
          sabuleti
          scabrinodis
          schencki RLD3
          specioides RLD3
     Solenopsis
          fugax RLD3
     Stenamma
          debile
     Tapinoma
          erraticum RLD3
     Temnothorax
          affinis
          corticalis RLD2
          crassispinus
          interruptus RLD3
          parvulus RLD3
          saxonicus RLD2
          tuberum RLD2
          unifasciatus
     Tetramorium
          impurum



1 Colony found containing the myrmecophilous woodlouse Platyarthrus hoffmannseggi.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Rickia wasmannii

Fairly regularly something comes along and completely stumps me, but it doesn't normally happen with European ants.

I thought I knew Myrmica well, especially M. scabrinodis, which is one of the species I most regularly encounter. This Bavarian specimen really has caused me to do a disproportionate amount of work to resolve it's identity.

First of all I wasn't even 100% certain that it was a Myrmica. It has unusually large mandibles and, particularly, it appears to be covered with rather strange clavate hairs. I had to get my BIG eyepieces out to check the tibial spurs on the middle and hind legs (which were dubiously pectinate) and then count the palp segments, which always takes a lot of effort to get the position and lighting good enough to see anything. The result was that it is definitely a Myrmica.

By this stage I had already decided that it had the antennal scape and overall shape of M. scabrinodis, but those hairs were peculiar. I worked my mounted specimen through Seifert (1988) and his new book (2007), both of which suggested clearly that the specimen is M. scabrinodis1.

I then really started asking questions about those hairs and, once I had thought of fungi as a possibility, I quickly found was seems to be the most likely answer: Rickia wasmannii. This was described from Germany, though I've no idea how common recorded it is. It was only recently collected from Hungary and Romania (Tartally, et al, 2007), and does not appear to be known from the UK. All five specimens in this collection are covered in these little growths on almost every part of their bodies.

I haven't actually confirmed this, but I suspect that species of Rickia are host specific and that R. wasmannii is the only one that is known from Myrmica sp. However, if anyone has any additional information on Rickia sp. I'd be very grateful to hear about it. In the meantime I will spend a lot more time looking at British Myrmica in the hope that I can get the first UK record of R. wasmannii!

I sure know how to have fun on a Friday evening.



1 For those who are interested in such things, the standard measurements and indices used to make the identification were as follows:
     Head length (HL) = 996 µm
     Head width (HW) = 952 µm
          HL/HW = 1.047
     Scape length (SL) = 763 µm
          SL/HL = 0.767
     Minimum distance between frontal carinae (FR) = 310 µm
          HW/FR = 3.071
     Maximum distance between frontal lobes (FL) = 443 µm
          FL/FR = 1.428
     Length of propodeal spines (SP) = 310 µm
          SP/HW = 0.311
     Petiole width (PE) = 266 µm
          PE/HW = 0.279
     Postpetiole width (PP) = 376 µm
          PP/HW = 0.395

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Dr Peter Witt

In the 1950s and 60s Dr. Peter Witt made a number of studies on the effects of various drugs on orb-web spiders, particularly the visible effects that the drugs had on their webs.

I found out about this research when I was at college, but for a long time assumed that it was just an urban myth. However, there is now the following video, which explains what actually happened:

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

X Dactyloglossum mixtum

The British summer has finally arrived, which means my flat is hot. Really hot. Too hot to look down a microscope without everything steaming up. As a result all ant work has had to cease until it cools down1.

I thought that in the meantime I might present some photographs of other things. I have an online gallery that I kept running for about 3 years and then neglected, so I'm letting the subscription run out. The photos, including some interesting ones, will go with it, so I think it will be nice to save some of them by publishing them here.

X Dactyloglossum mixtum is the hybrid between frog orchid Coeloglossum viride and common spotted-orchid Dactylorhiza fuchsii. Other images can be found at the UK Hardy Orchid Society's website.

The parent species are both fairly common in the UK and their habitats overlap, so X Dactyloglossum mixtum is widespread, but uncommon and rarely found. This specimen was found near Cheltenham in Gloucestershire in 2004 and was only the fifth record for the county. However, the really interesting thing is that the last time it was recorded in Gloucestershire was on the same site in 1966, so it's easy to speculate that this could be a very old plant.

I've looked for this plant subsequently in the same place, but have not found it since. It is likely that, like most orchids, X Dactyloglossum mixtum flowers only sporadically.

Incidentally, recent work by Professor Richard Bateman and colleagues on a phylogeny of orchids based on DNA has shown that Coeloglossum viride is actually a Dactylorhiza. This means that a new combination needs to be published for the hybrid, which should make it Dactylorhiza x mixta.

I should acknowledge Simon Harrap for originally suggesting the identity, and Mark and Clare Kitchen, BSBI Vice County Recorders for Gloucestershire, for verifying the specimen.



1 Like most British properties, my flat does not have air conditioning. What it does have is a very large south-facing window.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Satellite fly

This is a new one for me - like a lot of people I didn't even know such things existed.

Last month I was surveying a site in Surrey, just outside of Greater London, and had found a nice south facing slope with a thermophilic invertebrate community present. This included mining bees Andrena sp., plus the cleptoparasitic nomad bees Nomada sp. and bee-flies Bombylius sp., and the wasp Dolichovespula media. Also present were the ants Formica fusca, so I spent a bit of time on my knees seeing what other species were present (only Lasius niger s. str. and Myrmica scabrinodis as it turned out).

Whilst I was on the ground a solitary bee flew by, followed closely by this fairly nondescript looking fly. The bee stopped, and the fly stopped a few centimetres behind. The bee flew a little further and stopped, and the fly did likewise. It slowly dawned on me that the fly was actually stalking the bee!

The bee started to move down amongst some grass whilst the fly waited around, so I took the opportunity to take the photographs below. Okay, so they will win no prizes, but they were the only two I could take before I got too close and scared the fly away.

It's taken me a while to work out what this thing was, but I'm now pretty certain it was a satellite fly Leucophora sp. Like Nomada and Bombylius, Leucophora are cleptoparasitic, laying their eggs in the burrows of the bees they hunt. According to the Society for the study of flies there are only eight species of Leucophora in the UK, none of which have been commonly recorded if their maps are any judge (though these are likely to be very incomplete).

However, other than this I've been unable to find out any information. Remarkably, none of the British species of Leucophora have conservation status, which implies that they were missed or ignored the last time these flies were reviewed, as some of the eight species must be rare. Perhaps too little was known about them to make an accurate judgement of their status. Honestly, if it hadn't been behaving so unusually I'd have ignored this individual.

If anyone else has any useful information on these beasts I'd be very interested to hear, even if it is to say that they are actually really common!

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Myopias tenuis

I've been pretty quiet recently as I've been very busy organising my first overseas anting trip of 2008. About a month ago, the University of Regensburg, Germany, invited me to visit them. Part of the trip will involve a seminar, so I've been trying to write the seminar, arrange travel, etc. and re-learn the little German I knew 15 years ago. This and my full-time job have left little time for very much else.

To make up for the lack of posting I decided to post something rather neat. The specimen in the picture is Myopias tenius. It wasn't collected by me; that honour goes to Catherine L. Parr, who also attended the Ant Course in 2007. Catherine found a number of interesting species during the two weeks and kindly let me have this specimen. I've only now got around to identifying it.

According the Shattuck (1999), Myopias are infrequently collected and are found from Sri Lanka to southeast Australia. Within Australia, M. tenuis is only known from north Queensland, but is also known from New Guinea, including the Indonesian part, and the Solomon Islands (Willey & Brown, 1983). This specimen was collected from Smithfield Conservation Park, an area of rainforest about 10 minutes walk from James Cook University, Cairns campus.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Roy Snelling

It is with sadness that I report the death of Roy Snelling. Roy was one of the great figures in the study of Hymenoptera. He died in his sleep at the start of an expedition in Kenya.

I only had a small amount of contact with Roy, so I won't say too much. I met him on the Ant Course in Cairns, 2006 and had some email contact with him afterwards. He was a brilliant man with a wicked sense of humour, so I liked him right away, as I expect most people did.

He was also very generous with his expertise: he resolved the identity of some problem Rhoptromyrmex from Queensland and also provided some useful, and sometimes entertaining discussion on North American Lasius. His initial reaction to my query was, 'I detest Lasius!', a sentiment I suspect most people can sympathise with!

It is a sad loss, all the more so for his family and those close to him, to whom my thoughts go out.

Eulogies are at Myrmecos Blog and The Ant Farm and Myrmecology Forum.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Blooo! Blong!

It must be my inner child. This video had me in tears.



I'm just not sure whether this counts as cruelty - my belly aches in sympathy.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Miscellaneous ant collections

The last of the boring but possibly useful lists.

This covers those counties where I only have a few species recorded or in my collection. Those from Ireland and Senegal were collected by me. My parents have been good enough to collect ants for me, including from Mallorca and Austria. Specimens collected by David M. King were passed to me for identification; these came from Italy, Kuwait, Macedonia, Qatar, Turkey and the Canary Isles (not yet included). Claes-Göran Magnusson sent me a specimen from Sweden. Finally, Sabine Frohschammer passed on a few specimens from a live colony she had collected in Malasia.

Austria

Formicinae
     Camponotus
          herculeanus
     Formica
          aquilonia
          cinerea
          exsecta
          lemani
          lugubris
          paralugubris
          sanguinea
     Lasius
          fuliginosus
          niger
          platythorax
Myrmicinae
     Leptothorax
          acervorum
     Manica
          rubida
     Myrmica
          lobulicornis
          rubra
          ruginodis
          scabrinodis
          sulcinodis
     Harpagoxenus
          sublaevis

Ireland

Formicinae
     Formica
          lemani
     Lasius
          flavus
          grandis 1
          niger
Myrmicinae
     Myrmica
          ruginodis
          sabuleti
          scabrinodis
          schencki
     Tetramorium
          caespitum

Italy

Myrmicinae
     Aphaenogaster
          ionia

Kuwait

Myrmicinae
     Messor
          ebeninus
          minor
     Monomorium
          subcomae
     Pheidole
          teneriffana 2

Macedonia

Formicinae
     Cataglyphis
          aenescens

Malasia: Sarawak

Myrmicinae
     Monomorium
          floricola

Mallorca, Spain

Myrmicinae
     Crematogaster
          scutellaris
Dolichoderinae
     Linepithema
          humile 3

Qatar

Myrmicinae
     Monomorium
          tumaire

Senegal

Formicinae
     Camponotus
          sericeus
Myrmicinae
     Crematogaster
          senegalensis
Ponerinae
     Pachycondyla
          sennaarensis

Sweden

Formicinae
     Lasius
          umbratus

Turkey

Formicinae
     Cataglyphis
          nodus
Myrmicinae
     Aphaenogaster
          ionia
     Messor
          caducus
          denticulatus
     Pheidole
          pallidula
Dolichoderinae
     Tapinoma
          festae



1 I know this seems unlikely, but it's the best fit. I've had a paper half written for two years now. My problem is that I can't make my head measurements match those of Seifert's - on any Lasius. I've spoken to others and this is not a problem restricted to me! Oh, and Ireland also has L. psammophilus, with no evidence for L. alienus.
2 Introduced.
3 Introduced and apparently one of the dominant species on Mallorca now: my parents only collected the two species above, despite searching hard.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Australian ant collections

This is the most incomplete of the lists I'm going to present. There are two main reasons for this: the taxonomy of the Australian ant fauna is incredibly difficult, making identification hard, and I was interrupted by my work on the Gambian fauna. Eventually I will get back to these collections.

They are the result of my attendance on the Ant Course 2006, plus an extra week that I stayed. This was held at James Cook University (JCU) Cairns Campus. If you are interested in ants then I can't recommend the Ant Course strongly enough.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Australian ant fauna is quite special. Groups that are rare elsewhere, such as Iridomyrmex and Polyrhachis have diversified into many different forms. Others, such as Leptomyrmex, Turneria, Melophorus and the famous bulldog ants Myrmecia are limited to the Australasian region. I should also make mention of possibly the most famous Australian ant, Nothomyrmecia macrops.

There is a lot of work still to be done on these specimens. Iridomyrmex, Camponotus, Polyrhachis, Crematogaster and Pheidole are all common and diverse in Australia, so I collected a lot of different species. A key now exists for Camponotus, but I've only just started trying to sort through all the specimens I have. Iridomyrmex in particular is well-nigh impossible, as there are many species that differ very little. Many of the smaller groups also lack keys, so identification is not easy.

For further coverage check Australian Ants Online.

I should say that the specimens actually belong to JCU and that I have them as part of a loan to Cardiff Museum. Once I've finished with them they will go to Cardiff or back to JCU.

Aenictinae
     Aenictus
          aratus
Cerapachyinae
     Cerapachys
Dolichoderinae
     Anonychomyrma
     Iridomyrmex
     Leptomyrmex
          unicolor
          varians subsp. ruficeps
     Ochetellus
     Tapinoma
          melanocephalum 1
          minutum
     Technomyrmex
          albipes
     Turneria
          bidentata 2
Ectatomminae
     Rhytidoponera
Formicinae
     Acropyga
     Calomyrmex
     Camponotus
          aeneopilosus
          dromas
          vitreus
     Echinopla
          australis
     Melophorus
     Oecophylla
          smaragdina
     Opisthopsis
          haddoni
          jocosus
          pictus subsp. bimaculatus
     Paratrechina
     Polyrhachis
Myrmeciinae
     Myrmecia
Myrmicinae
     Cardiocondyla
          nuda 3
     Crematogaster
     Mayriella
          overbecki 4
     Meranoplus
          ajax
          hirsutus
     Monomorium
          fieldi
          laeve
          pharaonis 5
     Pheidole
     Podomyrma
     Rhoptromyrmex
          wroughtoni sp. 1
          wroughtoni sp. 26
     Tetramorium
          deceptum
          lanuginosum 3
          simillimum 3
     Wasmannia
          auropunctata 7
Ponerinae
     Hypoponera
     Leptogenys
     Myopias
          tenuis
     Odontomachus
     Pachycondyla
Pseudomyrmecinae
     Tetraponera
          punctulata



1 Introduced and collected in many situations, from wash-blocks to rainforest.
2 I only collected one specimen of this rarity, which is usually found in the canopy. I found it on my clothes in the room I was staying in at (JCU) Cairns Campus. I suspect that someone had shaken the tree it was on as I was beneath.
3 Introduced.
4 A bit of a rarity, especially in Queensland, where it is otherwise unknown (Shattuck & Barnett, 2007).
5 Introduced, found once crawling across the desk in the room I was staying in at JCU.
6 Considered to be rare, but I found it frequently enough in the rainforest that by the time I left I could recognise it on sight. Following a chat with Barry Bolton (who last reviewed the genus), I feel confident in saying that what I have belongs to two species.
7 Introduced around Cairns and apparently presenting quite a serious threat. Found abundantly in one place near JCU.

Monday, 21 April 2008

French ant collections

This list of ants in my collection was the result of a two week 'holiday' in the Dordogne and Massif Central areas of France. It was the first time I had ever collected ants outside of the UK and forecast the end of 'normal' holidays for me!

More information on the ants of France can be found at Fourmis, the French ant forum.

Dolichoderinae
     Dolichoderus
          quadripunctatus
     Tapinoma
          erraticum
Formicinae
     Camponotus
          aethiops
          cruentatus
          fallax
          gestroi 1
          lateralis
          ligniperda
          piceus
          trunctatus
          vagus
     Cataglyphis
          cursor
     Formica
          fusca
          gagates
          pratensis
          rufa
          rufibarbis
     Lasius
          alienus
          brunneus
          emaginatus
          flavus
          fuliginosus
          grandis 2
          niger
          platythorax
          psammophilus
     Plagiolepis
          pygmaea
Myrmicinae
     Crematogaster
          scutellaris
     Messor
          structor
     Myrmica
          sabuleti
          scabrinodis
     Pheidole
          megacephala 3
          pallidula
     Temnothorax
          grouvellei
          nylanderi
          racovitzai
          unifasciatus
     Tetramorium
          caespitum



1 Two alate queens, one found in the Salignac-Eyvigues, Dordogne, the other on Causse Noir in the Massif Central. The latter was found in association with C. lateralis. This species is not supposed to occur in mainland France, but after a lot of debate they were eventually confirmed by Cedric Collingwood.
2 A rarely recorded species in France. This collection was from the edge of a woodland near Nant, Massif Central. This has also been confirmed by Cedric Collingwood and matches the morphometrics given in Seifert (1992).
3 An introduced species in France, found alongside P. pallidula on the château walls at Castelnaud, Dordogne.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

UK ant collections

The other day I had a request from Professor James K. Wetterer at Florida Atlantic University. He had seen the invasive species listed as present in The Gambia and wanted further details of those and others that I had collected.

This lead to two surprises. The first was that someone was paying attention and cared what I get up to. The second was the large number of invasive ants I have collected, despite few collection forays outside of the UK. It has, however, made me wonder if it's worth highlighting the other species that I have in my collection or have records for, in case they are of use to anyone.

I've decided to kick this off with the shortest and simplest list: the paltry fauna of the UK (I'm going to upset some British myrmecologists with this description, but it doesn't make it any less true). A complete list of the 67 native and regularly recorded introduced ants can be found in the checklist available on the BWARS website. The few species that I have in my collection are listed below.

Formicidae
     Formica
          cunicularia
          fusca
          lemani
          lugubris
          picea 1
          rufa
     Lasius
          brunneus
          flavus
          fuliginosus
          niger
          platythorax
          psammophilus
          umbratus
Myrmicinae
     Formicoxenus
          nitidulus 2
     Leptothorax
          acervorum
     Myrmecina
          graminicola
     Myrmica
          lobicornis
          rubra
          ruginodis
          sabuleti
          scabrinodis
          schencki
          sulcinodis
     Technomyrmex
          albipes 3
     Temnothorax
          nylanderi
     Tetramorium
          caespitum



1 Alate queen collected in Yorkshire. Despite a lot of searching no colonies have been located in the area.
2 Two males collected by David Baldock.
3 Present only as a rare introduction, these specimens from the Eden Project.