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Ant Science in Brazil: A Photo Essay

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Myrmecologist Ricardo ("Bob") Solar ponders the sharp mandibles of an Atta laevigata soldier, the world's largest leafcutter ant. Bob hosted our visit to the Universidade Federal de Viçosa, one of Brazil's premier technical universities. (Viçosa, Minas Gerais)

If you follow Compound Eye, you are probably aware that we have been extremely boring since early May. So boring were we, in fact, that we haven’t actually posted anything.

We apologize for the dearth. Our absence was for good cause, though!

Mrs. Myrmecos and I have been travelling through southern Brazil with only sporadic internet access. The aim of our travels was Mrs. Myrmecos’s doctoral research. She is documenting the evolution of social structure in a genus of ants, Linepithema, whose colony organization and reproductive biology may have predisposed some species to become globally invasive pests. Why are some ants pesty while others are not? Addressing this question meant a lot of measuring the distance between and aggression among ant nests.

Basically, we watched ants fight. For science.

Even more importantly, we were hoping to connect with a few of Brazil’s ant researchers. Brazil is an emerging science powerhouse, and as the region is diverse in Linepithema we were laying a foundation for future collaborations with our Brazilian colleagues. In this regard, we did well. Better than planned, even. With any luck, we’ll return within the year to pursue a enlarged version of the project!

In any case, Compound Eye is back online. Here are a few photographs from our Brazilian expedition.

Brazil contains many endangered natural habitats, but among the most tragic is the Cerrado. This unique tropical savanna was largely unrecognized by conservation efforts until after most of it was destroyed for pasture and soybean production. We searched for- but did not find- populations of the cerradophilic ants Linepithema aztecoides and L. cerradense. (Carrancas, Minas Gerais)

Mrs. Myrmecos notes the distance between ant nests in Minas Gerais. Field biology can involve visits to beautiful places!

A quick-and-dirty evaluation of colony span involves collecting live ants from varying distances apart and seeing if they fight. Here, two Linepithema iniquum workers from Paraná engage in a bit of leg-pulling, presumably because they are from different colonies.

Bromeliads in the Atlantic Coastal forest at Morro da Mina. (Morretes, Paraná)

A charmingly noisy field vehicle transports the myrmecological field team to the primary forest at the Morro da Mina reserve. Graduate student Stela Soares (at right) studies the spatial ecology of leaf litter Pheidole ants in the primary forest. (Morretes, Paraná)

A disturbed remnant of Atlantic coastal rainforest near Morretes, Paraná.

Mathematical ecologist Felipe Neves, a graduate student at the Universidade Federal do Paraná, demonstrates the use of an aspirator to collect ants.

Stela and one of the helpful Morro da Mina park rangers in the primary forest.

A young cricket rides out the rain in Morro da Mina (Tettigoniidae: Conocephalinae- thanks to Sam Heads for the identification!)

Southern Brazil received a wave of Italian immigrants in the late 1880's, and the influence shows! We traveled to the Bento Gonçalves wine region in Rio Grande do Sul, where growers are experiencing problems with a native Linepithema ant in their vineyards.

Graduate student Aline Nondillo researches the role of ants in fostering pest problems in vineyards, and graciously hosted our stay in Rio Grande do Sul. Here, Aline poses with affected grape roots.

Linepithema micans astride a ground pearl. The "pearls" are actually a type of scale insect (related to aphids) that feed on the sap of grape roots, and Aline's research has shown that ants are complicit in the pest problem by spreading the scale among plants. (Bento Gonçalves, Rio Grande do Sul)

At the entrance of a small stingless bee nest (Tetragonisca angustula), workers remove debris from the hive. (Morretes, Paraná)

Myrmecologist Rodrigo Feitosa of the Museu de Zoologia in São Paulo holds a drawer containing one of the world's rarest ants: the enigmatic Martialis heureka.

Portrait of a heavily-armored Nomamyrmex army ant. (Monte Verde, Minas Gerais)

Júlio Chaul is a student at the Universidade Federal de Viçosa and a talented myrmecologist who was invaluable in the field. Here, Júlio looks for ants in a grazed cerrado. (Carroncas, Minas Gerais)

Júlio sorts ponerine ants at the collection in Viçosa. Natural history collections are vital repositories of information; their species occurrence records served as a guide for planning our own research!

A Strumigenys zeteki worker surveys her surroundings. (Minas Gerais)


Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is Curator of Entomology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Sean McCann 2:45 pm 06/13/2012

    Awesome! makes me wish I had some fieldwork now!

    Link to this
  2. 2. HBG_Dave 7:53 pm 06/14/2012

    Looks like it was a great trip. Brazil is becoming a powerhouse in acarological research too. Sun, bugs, and vistas: who could ask for more. How was the wine?

    Link to this

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