March 8, 2013 | 8
I was surprised to see this as a finalist in the Smithsonian’s 2012 Photo Contest:
I was surprised because, to this ant biologist’s eyes, the scene is obviously faked. Ants don’t do that.
And why would they? They’re not herbivores, this species, and that’s an extraordinarily inefficient way to transport food, anyway. The image is probably compelling for that reason. It is a wholly unnatural arrangement of ants doing something, well, “unique and rare.”
The fakery does not involve photoshop. Given what I know of this species, I suspect the insects were posed as follows.
Oecophylla smaragdina, the Asian weaver ant, is not shy about attacking intruders to its treetop territories. The scene can be set by taunting guard ants, who stand to attention and look around for something to bite. If you hand an ant something into which she can sink her toothy jaws, she will grab and hold; this species is unusually tenacious and the guards will cling to offending items for some time. The strategy works well to deter attack by other ants, for example.
Weaver ants are strong- that part isn’t faked. The ants build nests by pulling living tree leaves together and binding them with larval silk. The strength and grip involved in bending leaves and stems is unusual even among ants.
The patient observer can cajole the angry-but-not-terribly-bright insects into a pattern like that seen in Mr. Adiyanto’s photo. It’s clever. And I’d be fine with the image if the photographer weren’t trying to pass off a manufactured pose as natural ant behavior.
Mr. Adiyanto’s circus ants might have a place in the Smithsonian’s “Altered Images” category. But they certainly don’t belong among the “Natural World” offerings.
update (3/13/2013): The Smithsonian has contacted the photographer, who admits to staging the photographs exactly as I describe above:
Adiyato explains that he fed seeds from different plants to the ants and lifted, placed, and stacked the ants on the branch himself. Once the ants were in these positions, he took the photograph. He writes, in an email, that he has been observing and studying ants because of their outsized power.
We also asked Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History entomologist Ted Schultz about the scene. “Like Alex Wild says, they wouldn’t really be carrying these things for any reason. On top of that, they wouldn’t really be hanging upside down holding them like that. It is not like they are going to eat those things, those [seeds] are not food for them.”