A Photographer Who Knows His Subject, Painted Ants

on Thursday, Apr. 12th

He may not think of himself this way, but Illinois-based insect photographer Alex Wild is the consummate beat reporter. For the past five years, he’s been covering the same subject — ants and other social insects — on his blog Myrmecos.net. As a practicing research scientist who studies the evolution and taxonomy of various insects, he knows more about what he’s reporting on than most science journalists. Plus, he gets all the inside scoops on hot, new bugs since he’s buddies with some of the top entomologists in the world.

But even though Wild’s photos are everywhere, from The New York Times to National Geographic to the first Google Images that pop up when you type in “ant,” he’s far from a household name. It’s about time he rises in the ranks.

I first connected his images to his name — and what a name it is for a wildlife photographer — last year when a study that used ants to explore the basic rules of social networks started making the rounds on science blogs. The study itself was interesting enough, but what caught my attention was the photo of the insects from the study: they were painted to look like brightly colored candy or jewelry. And when I searched for more photos, I soon found Wild’s exhaustive gallery of insect images.

Here are some of his photos and what he had to say about them:

“The point of painting the ants is to keep track of the individuals in the colony. These Temnothorax rugatulus are among the smaller North American ants. You can fit an entire colony between microscope slides and video the whole thing. But painting them is more of a challenge than other kinds of ants.

“The researchers anesthetize the ants with carbon dioxide, which knocks them out for a few minutes. Then they hold them still and take a little fine wire, dab it in a nontoxic paint and put little bobs on the end to make color combinations.

“Insects have exoskeletons made up of a bunch of plates, like armor. If the researcher gets the daub of paint onto more than one plate, the ants won’t be able to move around. Or if they miss while painting the head, they may paint down an antenna. Here’s what separates your good ant painters from the not-so-good ones — the really good painters know just the right amount to put on, so that there’s color but also so that none of the air holes are blocked.

“The main trouble researchers have is getting the paint to actually stay on the ants. Imagine if a giant alien swooped down and daubed you with a huge glob of paint on your head. Once you came to, you’d probably spend a bit of time trying to get the paint off. It turns out that ants are like this too. So if you just paint one ant then let her go back in the colony, the other ants will strip the paint off of her. Someone found out that you have to paint a bunch of ants at once so that you have a critical mass and the ants don’t realize that one is different.

“The one with the really long mandible is Harpegnathos saltator. This is a fascinating ant. It’s big. It’s much larger than our own native ants. Picture a carpenter ant but only larger. It has an amazing jaw and just huge eyes. This is an ant that when you walk up to it, it looks at you. It will turn its head. Kind of spooky.

“At Arizona State University they have a special containment room for them. It’s a non-native species.  In this room they have boxes and boxes of painted ants. It’s actually a lot easier to paint these ants. The order of magnitude of these to the Temnothorax is probably the difference between a chihuahua and an elephant.

“These ants live in really small social groups. Unlike in a lot of more classic ants which have a completely sterile worker class, all of the females in these colonies have some ability to reproduce. Because of that reproductive power, there is a constant soap opera going on within all of the members of the colony over who’s dominant and who isn’t.

“This Harpegnathos species has become a really good model of earlier stages of ant evolution. These ants haven’t settled on strongly divided differences between queens and workers. Some workers can rise up in the ranks. For that reason, this ant was one of the first to have its genome sequenced. So it was very important for their study as they follow these soap operas to keep track of which ant is which.”

This post is the first in a Turnstyle series about New Science Media, with profiles of the next Carl Sagans and previews of the emerging platforms they’re using to tell their stories.

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