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Art of the Living Dead

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

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Eciton hamatum, painted by Hashime Murayama (1934)

Swarms of army ants naturally inspire fear, of course, but to people who know ants this painting is even more terrifying.

Hashime Murayama has not only drawn army ants, but undead army ants, their reanimated corpses lurching towards us in eerie procession. The bodies rigid, antennae jarringly askew, these ants are clearly chasing us from beyond the grave. Spooky! And, unintentional.

Murayama, like most scientific illustrators of his time, drew from preserved museum specimens. With no easy way to verify the animals’ natural posture, the resulting paintings depict contorted, dying animals.

Consider an Australian bull ant:

Myrmecia nigriceps, alive, with head and antennae forward and abdomen held high.

Myrmecia nigriceps, dead, with head down and antennae back (Image via

Of course, paintings based on a pinned specimen will look much as Murayama’s does:

Murayama's zombie Myrmecia. Note the upward-pointed antennae and downward-pointed head.

Older natural history art is often a bit off. We can’t really blame the artists, though. It’s not like an early century museum illustrator could just pop down to Australia to observe live bull ants, or check youtube for a pertinent video. Instead, we enjoy the art for what it tell us of the natural history of illustration, rather than of natural history itself.

Plus, zombies.


Murayama's fire ants.

[copyright note: My reproduction of Murayama's work is intended as Fair Use editorial commentary on the paintings]

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. Mike from Ottawa 8:02 pm 02/25/2013

    No matter how many of them I’ve seen, I’m always struck by the beauty of your pics of ants on white.

    Link to this

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