Ant Course: August 2012 Archives

2012course1.jpgThe 2012 group at the Ant Course's closing ceremony.

Another fantastic Ant Course has come to a close, alas, and participants in our African adventure are headed home. We have enjoyed the great generosity of our Ugandan hosts at the Makerere University Field Station, the delights of myrmecological discovery among the local ants, and the warm companionship of students and instructors alike.

Ant Course 2013 will be held in tropical South America. Topping the 2012 Africa class will be a daunting challenge, but we'll certainly do our best.

2012course2.jpgEveryone make antennae!

Thanks for following our little blog during the course, and please continue to drop AntAsk a line with your ant-related questions!

The Catch - Part 2


[the following post was contributed by Ant Course participant Alex Wild]

With just a couple days left here in Kibale forest, the Ant Course continues to uncover fascinating African ants. Here are a few more of the formicid treasures we've seen!

microdaceton1s.jpgMicrodaceton is a tiny predator

aenictogeton1s.jpgA rare find: a male of the enigmatic army ant Aenictogeton

phrynoponera1s.jpgA delightfully spiny Phrynoponera

leptanilla3s.jpgLeptanilla is so small you'd almost not notice it squeezing through the soil.

[the following post was contributed by Ant Course participant Ilaria Toni]

It is great to be here in the middle of the tropical forest in Uganda with all these people: so passionate and full of energy! Students and instructors are all for me a great source of inspiration.

And... it's also great to take a shower with birds nesting overhead!

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[The following contribution is by Ant Course participant Eunice Soh]

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Just taking a break from the ant work now... Anyway, the field site we're at is beautiful and there's a good diversity of animals.

[2].jpgThe place where we stay, at the Makerere University Biological Field Station, at the heart of Kibale Forest, Western Uganda.

[3].jpgHere's the friendly "neighbourhood" monkey that hangs around, the Red-and-White Colobus Monkey!

[4].jpgA very cool blue lizard spotted by one of the participants of the Ant Course.

[5].jpgSnooping around the forest, I found many beetles, especially weevils that come in many different colours and sizes...

[6] moths_combined.jpgThe moth diversity is really amazing as well!

[7] IMG_4988.jpgOne last photo: an ant-mimicking fly, possibly.

So far, the weather, diversity and learning so much about ants has been really amazing and I wouldn't exchange it for anything else!

While we here at Ant Course have been mostly obsessed with finding the fabulous local formicids, we are surrounded by other wildlife too. Here's a sampler:

Red colobus king1.jpgRed colobus monkey (photo by 'Harpegnathos')


lichen_or_not.jpgIs this a lichen? (photo by Sean McKenzie)


lucila1.jpgRed colobus monkey (photo by Lucila Chifflet)

The Catch


[The following contribution is by Ant Course participant Alex Wild]

And now, a few more ants we have seen at the Kibale forest during the ongoing Ant Course:

probolomyrmex1s.jpgProbolomyrmex is one of the rarer soil-dwelling ants captured during the course.

ant_fight1s.jpgPheidole spread-eagle an intruding Tetramorium forager.

cerapachys1s.jpgA glimpse inside a Cerapachys nest.

[The following contribution is by Ant Course participant 'Harpegnathos']

I am not a professional myrmecologist and have had no formal education in entomology, but after I obtained a copy of Hölldobler and Wilson's The Ants in 1994, an abiding interest in ants turned into a passion. Over the years I acquired a microscope, a camera for photographing ants, every ant book Amazon sells, a better microscope, better camera gear. I became a participant and eventually a moderator in the American ant enthusiast internet site, The Ant Farm and Myrmecology Forum (antfarm.yuku.com). I studied ants in the field while living in Europe and several American States, with further travel to Africa and the Middle East. I learned how to collect and preserve specimens, some of which found their way to university collections. But my skills are self-taught, and with no face-to-face interaction with real myrmecologists, I missed the benefit of professional feedback, advice, and direction. Reading books and papers has its limits.

Of course when I heard about Ant Course, I had to apply. Of course seats are limited and priority goes to university students and researchers who need the course for their work, so I didn't get in. So I applied again. And again. And again. After applying five times (or six?), I finally was accepted to attend this year's iteration in Kibale Forest, Uganda. So now I'm here, surrounded by real myrmecologists and students of myrmecology, with an opportunity to learn all the things that I could never learn from books, like how to actually pronounce all those crazy Latin and Greek names, such as clypeus, pygidium, Pachycondyla, Odontomachus, and Dolichoderinae!

Except it turns out no two myrmecologists pronounce these words the same way. O-dont-o-MOCK-us, o-dont-o-MAKE-us, to-MAH-to, to-MAY-to. Still, I am learning plenty of other skills I would never have figured out on my own, and I'm meeting some great people. Plus the ants here in Kibale Forest are amazingly diverse and endlessly fascinating. Here are a couple of photographs from the first few days in Uganda:

king3.jpgCamponotus tending scale insects, Entebbe Botanical Garden.

king2.jpgStrumigenys rescuing brood from intrusive myrmecologists.

king1.jpgA new species of Tetramorium, nicknamed the "Teddy Bear Ant," carrying a termite.

- Harpegnathos@antfarm

[update 8/10: ant expert Barry Bolton emails in identifications for the species pictured above as Camponotus probably brutus, Strumigenys probably lujae, and Tetramorium pulcherrimum.]

[The following contribution is by Ant Course participant Brad Wright]

When I was younger I went to the local movie theater to see the film "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids". If you haven't seen this classic it is basically about a scientist who invents a shrink ray for some odd reason, his children along with the neighbor's children are accidently shrunken by said ray, adventure ensues, and a couple of the children unwillingly ride a bee. That's the basic formula and somehow this formula spawned several, though slightly less successful, sequels. Anyway, in the original film the now microscopic children are trekking through what could easily be mistaken for a remote tropical jungle but in fact it is their front yard that seems dangerous and inhospitable due to their very small stature. Along the way they befriend an ant, who they lovingly name "Anty", that serves not only as a form of transportation but also protection. Sadly the ant is killed protecting the children from a vicious scorpion. I would have said, "Spoiler Alert" before that last comment but if you haven't seen a 20 year old movie by now then the onus is on you. After seeing the movie I would pretend that I too had access to an ant large enough to ride into battle or one capable of chopping the heads off of my scorpion enemies or the occasional unsuspecting school bully. As I got older, movie ants came and went but I think it was with "Anty" that my fascination with ants began.

Besides being possible heavy artillery inspired by the fourth best Rick Moranis film or a method of exacting vengeance upon grade school tormentors, ants are interesting in other ways too. Ants are one of the most abundant life forms on earth and can be found on every continent except Antarctica. Ants represent nearly 10% of animal biomass in temperate regions and up to 15% in the tropics. Ants also occupy every forest strata from subterranean to arboreal. Just try to NOT find an ant. I dare you!

Today, there are over 12,000 described species with an estimated 12,000 more waiting for discovery or description. Some researchers even estimate the total number of ant species to be as high as 50,000 species! Whatever the exact number may be we already know that each species has its own unique natural history and even its own unique culture and way of life. Unfortunately, for many species very little is known.

Ants can be voracious predators of other arthropods or they can even grow their own food in the form of fungus gardens, which basically means that ants invented agriculture millions of years before humans. Some ant species form symbiotic relationships with other insects that feed on root systems and secrete a food substance called honeydew. The ants get a nutritious food source while their honeydew secreting companions gain protection and transportation to different roots. Ants are known to protect Acacia trees from harmful insects in exchange for proteinatious food substances called beltian bodies and small cavities in which to live in called domatia. Besides being great dispersers of seeds ants are also thought to overturn and enrich more soil than earthworms and changes in nest structure or native range can be used to study global climate change.

It's easy for us humans to overlook the absolute dominance of ant species as we tower above them or occasionally burn them with a magnifying glass. Sometimes humans think that we are masters of terra firma but in fact, ants have been here millions of years before us and will be here millions of years after we're gone. Yet, they have somehow remained so unpretentious about that fact. I for one would like to welcome our ant overlords.

[The following contribution is by Ant Course participant Andrea Walker]

walker1.jpg

Sunday morning, students and instructors arrived in Uganda. Several of us students visited the Botanic Garden and the Zoo. At the garden we got our first glimpse of the infamous Dorylus Driver Ants! The Ant Course introductory meeting was also held.

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This photo is a close up of Driver Ants (known locally as Siafu). These few were just a small portion of the long and dense trail the ants formed as they crossed our path.

walker3.jpg

Tuesday the students were introduced to the subfamilies of ants, ant phylogeny and classification. In the afternoon, the instructors demonstrated various methods to collect ants. Some of the methods included using pitfall traps, Davis sifter, baiting using cookies or tuna, soil core samples, malaise traps, and the winkler system. In the evening Andy Suarez gave a talk about ant invasions and invasive ants. In this photo Peter Hawkes talks about sweep netting samples into emergence containers.

walker4.jpg

Wednesday we had a morning field trip to collect ants with our newfound knowledge of collection techniques and methods. Methods we practiced included winkler sampling, Hand/aspirator collecting, twig and rotten log collection, and several other methods. It was also too active of a day for only one photo. :) Enjoy a few! The first photo is a Trap-Jaw ant (Odontomachus) as it clasped to my pantleg and proceeded sting me through the fabric. It was a bit of a surprise, and then another worker stung me!

walker7.jpg

walker5.jpg

This photo shows me using a machete to loosen the litter for use in a winkler sample.

walker6.jpg

This photo shows students working at their microscopes in the evening.

ant_course1.jpg[Brian Fisher and Corrie Moreau demonstrate Winkler sifting as a method for collecting ants. Kibale Forest, Uganda]

August is a seminal time for ant scientists. Every year for over a decade, 30 students and an assemblage of professional myrmecologists gather to learn about, and celebrate the diversity of, the world's most dominant insects. Part course, part mini-conference, part research expedition, the Ant Course has become a focal event for myrmecologists around the world.

2012 marks the course's first African installment. Some of the AntWeb team is now on site at Makerere University Field Station in Kibale National Park, Uganda, surrounded by monkeys, giant tropical trees, and a staggering diversity of insects. Wilderness isn't all the group is enjoying, however. Through the miracle of a cell phone modem, Ant Course finds itself with internet in the forest.

tetramorium1s.jpg[Tetramorium aculeatum-group ants foraging along a tree trunk. Kibale Forest, Uganda]

What does this connectivity mean?

For the first time ever we'll be blogging the Ant Course as it happens. Course participants will contribute observations, photographs, anecdotes, and updates from the field. Stay tuned to this space!

-Alex Wild
Ant Course Outreach Coordinator

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