The Ants Get Photographed One by One (Hurrah, Hurrah)

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I never would have thought ants especially sought after, even in the world of entomology. Certainly more exotic insects--the wide assortment of beetles, for instance, or stick bugs--would capture a bug scientist’s eye, right? Yet, a team of American researchers, led by Dr. Brian Fisher, are on a global quest to photograph every species of ant. Their aim? The completion of an online 3D gallery that would inform researchers and bug enthusiasts alike.

Before yesterday, I would have scoffed. Why go around the world to get pictures of ants? In my mind, three types existed: the harmless picnic ant, the vicious fire ant and the large carpenter ant. Sure, ants’ industriousness has won them cameos in literature and cinematography from the serious Book of Proverbs to the amusing Disney flick A Bug’s Life, but I ranked ants as fairly common insects. Not so! Scientists estimate there are nearly 30,000 species of ants. (A mere ten thousand times more than my best guesses.) Only about half have been studied or mentioned academically. That leaves thousands of ants waiting to be discovered, and the curators at AntWeb have accepted the challenge.

The team members’ search takes them to exotic places—the founder of AntWeb discovered the “Dracula ant” species in Madagascar—but also to less obvious sites, such as natural museums where hundreds of pinned ants lie side by side. Most recently, the scientists have set up their cameras at the Natural History Museum in London, which houses thousands of ant species.

Aneuretus simoni species (Photo: April Nobile/AntWeb.org)

It’s hard to wrap your mind around the statistics, but so far, the American team has a hefty collection of nearly 80,000 photos. These photos depict slightly more than 8,000 ant species. Scrolling down the homepage, one discovers the incredible variety from ant to ant. The members of the subfamily Dorylinae have nasty looking pinchers, while the representative of the Formicinae subfamily has an innocent, blue-eyed baby face. Some ants eyes bulge from their heads, while others have peepers that blend into their face, hidden beneath antennae. The shapes of the heads range from spherical to rectangular to trapezoidal. It’s fascinating, even for someone like me who wouldn’t put bug-watching down as a top hobby.

If the site contained static images of ants, well, that would be boring unto tears after the first hundred photos. Using a special technique, however, the AntWeb scientists create three-dimensional images. The team stitches together highly magnified pictures, each of which captures a specimen from a different angle. In the final version, the ant’s body appears in perfect detail, popping off the webpage and offering a wealth of information to anyone with a curious mind.

There’s a moral in here somewhere—there usually is when ants come up in conversation. But instead of plagiarizing Aesop’s wisdom, I’ll just point out that ants provided me a humbling lesson in not assuming I know more than I really do.

Top Photo:  Ancyridris indet species by April Nobile/AntWeb.org

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