Wednesday, June 30, 2010

In Peru!

Wouldn´t you know it, I´m in Puerto Maldonado, Peru! My trip was
indeed boring. There was even a Starbucks. Sheesh!

No prison, for now...

I managed to clear emigration with no significant hurdles. They didn't even wave handcuffs in my face or anything -- nor check in any way for contraband entomological samples.

Now for the big test. Can I make my connection in Lima?

Stay tuned...

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Busted flat in São Paulo, waiting for a plane...

Cerrado: picture unrelated

Over the course of 48 hours, I'm meant to :

1) Take a flight from Uberlândia to São Paulo.
2) Spend a night in Guarulhos International Airport
3) Catch a flight the next morning to Lima, Peru.
4) Disembark, clear immigration, get my bag, clear customs, check my bag in to my connecting flight on another airline, clear security, and then board said flight in the span of 90 minutes.
5) Hang out on the tarmac in Cuzco.
6) Continue on to Puerto Maldonado, meeting my collaborator's husband at the airport.
7) Spend the night in Puerto Maldonado.
8) Catch a boat up the river for 5 hours.

So far, my dear digital companions, I have already managed to very nearly bollocks up the whole thing by boarding the wrong plane out of Uberlândia. Apparently the modus operendi at UDI is to go an entire afternoon with no flights, have three planes land at once, and then vaguely wave the collected mass of people out four sets of doors (these stand all of ten feet apart) onto the unlabeled tarmac to walk a hundred yards or so to the waiting aircraft. 

My plane, it turns out, was behind door number 1. Naturally, I chose door number 2. 

Door Number 2, you see, was a nice big Airbus 320, and was reassuringly painted in the colors of the airline with which I had purchased my ticket. Door Number 1 was one of those tiny puddle jumpers in an unfamiliar paint job. I did have a lingering feeling that I had pulled a Me (had door number 3 been revealed to contain a goat I would have immediately jumped plane), so I showed my ticket stub to the hostess and asked in my halting Portuguese if I was on the right flight. She looked at it carefully, assured me that I was, and helpfully pointed me to one of the few remaining empty seats on the flight, into which I quickly settled. 

Well, thank goodness Random Airport Guy With Epaulettes stormed onto that Airbus just before they were about to close the door, pointing at me with worried eyes. He said something like, "Emerson?" to which a sagely shook my head. "Sanders," I assured him. Frantic Airport Guy would not be dissuaded, however, and demanded my ticket stub. Whoops. Wrong plane. 

Fortunately, and perhaps unusually, Door Number 1 was still on the ground. Grabbing my inexplicably heavy shoulder bag and camera case with as much grace as I could muster (read: no grace), I stumbled down the stairs and gave my best sheepish smile to the string of flight attendants between the two planes. 

Once I got to GRU, I snapped my bag off the carousel (it was one of the first, apparently happy to see me), and immediately stormed over to try and snatch an earlier flight to Lima. From this point I think I've managed to make something of a better showing of myself,  managing to fail at getting an earlier flight, succeed in getting a locker for my giant bag of labware, and, eventually, succeed at getting wireless internet, all in three separate interactions with people who spoke no English. Two of them didn't even try to speak English to me! 

Well, that's all for now, folks. Not because I have something better to do -- I don't. Not for another 11 hours. 11 freaking hours.

But because I feel that I have wrung as much rambling and wordy humor as is humanly possible from the last six relatively boring hours, and want to leave some reserves for what I hope to be an even more boring next 41.

Tchau para agora. 

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Too much fun!

The bad news is, I haven't been keeping up my goal of a post per day.

The good news is, it's because I've been working hard and having fun. As of last count, I've dissected and preserved over 500 guts from 12 different Cephalotes species. (This, of course, doesn't count the guts that I've dissected and mangled beyond recognition.) This puts me into an elite category of humans skilled and experienced at pulling the guts out of insects -- something that I'm sure is far rarer than, say, offensive linemen for the NFL or CEOs of multinational corporations. Combine this with my even more esoteric deep-sea provannid gastropod dismemberment skills, and I believe that I can say with some confidence that I am the only person in the history of humanity to have dissected more than 500 hydrothermal vent gastropods and more than 500 Cephalotes ants in the same calendar year.  How is that for accomplishment! 

There's a comic strip, I believe it's a Far Side, in which a man at a podium is introducing the plenary speaker for some scientific conference -- "Please give a warm welcome for Dr. Smith," he says, "the world's foremost authority on slime mold reproduction." 

Dr. Smith, meanwhile, head in hands, is asking himself, "God, what have I done with my life?" 

I love this comic. It captures, for me, the tensions between external understanding and appreciation of basic science (or lack thereof), and the internal motivations that drive us as scientists. A lot of basic science, such as the study of reproduction in slime molds, can be really hard to explain and justify to the public -- and consequently, funding for research into slime mold reproduction is generally pretty tight. It's much easier for the government (and industry!) to earmark research money for stuff like "curing cancer" (incidentally, it is easier still for these players to fund stuff like "killer robots" and "giant lasers," but that's the subject of another post). 

The thing is, slime mold reproduction is really interesting. When you dig down into it, slime mold research has implications for everything from the philosophical meaning of individuality, to the evolution of cooperation, to, yes, cancer research. But it's hard to communicate this to a senator, and I wouldn't even bother with someone like Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh -- the connections to these more tangible subjects are deep, and it takes a lot of background understanding to really capture that depth. 

For better or for worse, the same depth that obscures the importance of basic research is simultaneously its greatest strength. Slime mold research isn't interesting to us because slime molds are inherently interesting (although they certainly are), but because their unique biology gives us a new perspective on the rest of life. They provide a test case for the theories we develop to explain ourselves. The dividends to this research aren't payed out in specific drugs or cures within the decade, but in fundamental advances to human understanding that enable new discoveries thirty or a hundred years down the road.

That Far Side cartoon is funny because it inverts the usual scenario -- the scientist stands on stage, doubting the import of his research in front of an adoring public (well, a very small adoring public). Most days of the year, it's the opposite, and our private excitement for our subjects contrasts to the public's skeptical boredom. 

We all have our moments of doubt and reflection, as we should. But for the kind of work I and my peers do, these moments are bends in a rushing river of curiosity. There's no way I could spend a month in front of a microscope, using $100 tweezers to dissect hundreds of ants, without being pretty damn motivated. Seriously, I have killer ADD. 

But there's something really amazing going on in these ants, something that may give us insight into the amazing things going on in ourselves. And I aim to get to the bottom of it -- I mean, is writing expense reports really any better? 

Plus, look at these leafcutter ants. Just look at them. 

When I was collecting the other day, this leafcutter nest was right under my focal tree. This was cool because leafcutter ants are amazing to watch, but uncool because they're basically mindless biting machines. If I left anything anywhere for more than a few minutes, it became basically covered in swarms of giant ants intent on reducing it to small pieces and using it to grow fungus. For some reason they were extremely interested in my nylon backpack:

Atta colonies have a few million individuals, and are generally the most important herbivore in their habitat. A quick google was unhelpful in revealing the biomass of the colony, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was approximately the size of a cow. They do, apparently, move 40 tons of earth in the excavation of their nests. They're truly nuts. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Tickbomb II: Ticks Strike Back

I have a number of crappy pictures for you today, as followup to some things I've mentioned previously.

First off, Scott got whalluped today by a king-size tickbomb, which gave me the perfect opportunity to take some macros for you all. (It's easier to do this kind of thing when they're crawling all over someone else's skin!) Fortunately, he noticed the blast before they migrated under his clothes, and was able to get the lion's share off with tape. I only got a chance to snap these in my room after dark, so the lighting is totally awful.

For what it's worth, I counted about 120 ticks on the bottom piece of tape. Here's a closeup:

Cute little buggers, eh?

While we're on the subject of parasite, here's Langsdorffia hypogaea, the parasitic flower I mentioned a few posts ago, and which was most helpfully ID'ed for me by Prof. Emilio Bruna in the comments. This one is much less likely to make your skin crawl -- at least as long as you have skin, and not, say, bark.

And finally, moving out of the parasitic and into the predatory, we have Pachycondyla somethingorother, a gnarly predatory ant that reminds me of that giant tiger-lizard-thing in Avatar. Egads, look at those mandibles! This picture is horrible and blurry, since Pachycondyla moves fast and I move slow / don't know what I'm doing with this lens. But somehow I feel like it's befitting this particular ant's image, like the jaguar lurking in the shadows...

Not too much else to report today. Caught literally a backpack-full of ants at Caça e Pesca, which are going to keep me well and truly occupied at the microscope tomorrow. Oh yeah, and there was some sort of sporting event today...

Friday, June 11, 2010

The mother lode

We got a present while tromping through the cerrado yesterday. Check these bad girls out!

Cephalotes clypeatus trying not to get aspirated.

Cephalotes clypeatus is a really unique, absolutely beautiful member of the genus. The pictures on Ant Web (linked) don't really do it justice: the cuticle on living specimens is very translucent, and forms a sort of membranous ridge around virtually the whole dorsal aspect of the animal. Combined with the striking amber-gold coloration, it gives something of a knight-in-shining-armor kind of feel to this species. (In the ridiculous Avataresque ant-based action movie I've been writing in my head, these gals are definitely going to play the role of shock troops / tanks for the good guys -- thrill as the canopy ants defend their ancient home against the marauding Ponerines!)

Anyway, Scott hasn't come across too terribly many of this species in the area, and they fall into an interesting spot in the phylogeny, so I was a little worried about coming home with a clypeatus-shaped hole in my sample set. But what did we find while out collecting pitfall traps, but a shining amber stream of C. clypeatus?

Fortunately for us (unfortunately for them), they were even nesting in a fallen limb that had gotten hung up on its way down. This means that we were able to collect what may be the whole colony. And it's a doozy!

Scott gently taps them out of the log, while I stand ready with an aspirator. There's a trick to doing this without inhaling sawdust. 

We were able to get through one of the four sections today. Who knew so many ants could fit in a log?! Although my sample requirements aren't anywhere near so big, by randomly sampling from the whole colony, Scott will be able to make some important observations about the distribution of size variation among workers; this in turn will play an important role in understanding the evolution of social structure and caste determination.

The end of the line -- C. clypeatus digestive tract, with midgut (left), ileum, and rectum. The little snakey bits are malphigian tubules; the little white hairs are tracheae. 

So that was my day -- cracking open logs, sucking ants through straws, and then staring at them through a microscope. Ahh, the good life...

Many thanks to Galen for squeezing off these shots in between frantic ant-wrangling!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

It's not all fun and games; or, what I'm actually doing here

Fig. 1: the morning commute. 

You might think, based on the few posts so far this season, that "field" work for this marine-biologist-cum-entomologist consists entirely of traipsing happily through tick-infested woods, merrily climbing trees and peeing in all sorts of containers. And if my work day ended in the mid-afternoon, you'd be right. (I would dearly like for this to be the case, but alas!)

Oh no -- there is so much more fun to be had. Behold: the lab!

Fig. 2: pit of eternal despair lab station

The real reason I've flown halfway around the world, instead of just asking friendly scientists like Scott for some spare ants, is that I'm hoping to look inside the ants at the communities of microbes inhabiting their gastrointestinal tracts. Recent research by the fantastic Jake Russell, Corrie Moreau, and others suggests that ants with a mostly-vegetarian lifestyle (like yours truly!) have evolved unique partnerships with certain microbes. These microbes (some of which, incidentally, seem to be closely related to the bacteria that fix nitrogen in legumes) may be important in providing the ants certain nutrients -- such as nitrogen in the form of essential amino acids -- that are limited or absent in their plant-based diets. We humans also have important communities of microbes in our guts, that provide us all sorts of services that we're only just begging to understand and appreciate. I'm interested in how relationships in these microbial communities have evolved in concert with their host animals: have certain microbes evolved in parallel with their hosts over millions of years, or is it a big free-for-all with frequent partner swapping? Do the communities in ants look similar to those in humans and other vertebrates, and do they behave the same way? Are there some over-arching rules we can piece together governing these kinds of complex relationships?

Ants, for a bajillion different reasons that I won't go into right now, make really cool systems in which to study these questions. And we happen to have, at my research institution, the world's largest collection of ant specimens (really!). The thing is, most of these specimens aren't really any good for the questions I'm asking. When people like my office-mate E.O. Wilson (ed. note: I still have a hard time believing this) collected ants over the years, they spent a lot of time making sure the specimens were useful for ant taxonomy, and not a lot of time thinking about the microbes within.

While there's still a lot you can do with 'normal' ethanol-preserved specimens (Profs. Russell and Moreau's recent PNAS paper was done using mostly these kinds of samples), after a certain point you'd like to start using samples that were collected with microbes in mind. That's when things start to get crazy.

If you've ever hung out with a microbial ecologist, you'll get what I mean. Microbiologists are cut from something of a different cloth than your typical entomologist. Where insects might seem to be everywhere, microbes really are everywhere. As in, literally, everywhere. One must got to extreme, perverse lengths to try and manufacture places where microbes aren't. So if your questions is "which microbes are present in this sample?" and you'd like not to answer instead "which microbes are present in this sample, and on my hands, and in my hair, and on this bench, and just kind of floating around in the air, and also apparently thumbing their noses at Louise Pasteur and spontaneously generating from the aether" then you have to start being a new kind of anal.

Fig. 3: a new kind of anal. As in, an ant's dissected GI tract. a: ileum (where the magic microbes live). b: rectum. c: other bits.

So that's why I'm here, in person, with $400 worth of tweezers. In addition to catching a whole bunch of different ants, I'm also preparing them in all sorts of extra special ways in the hopes of getting good, clean information on the microbes living within. That means coming back from the field, washing up, sitting down in front of a microscope with my extreme tweezers, and dissecting the guts out of hundreds of ants (pictured above).

Hey, it beats flipping burgers...

Monday, June 7, 2010


I apologize for the lack of header photo on today's post, my lovelies. I forgot my camera at home today, and thus was unable to capture sublime images of the cerrado for you to enjoy. There is a picture in this post, but because of its semi-graphic nature, I'm going to bury it below the fold. For the squeamish, stop reading here, enjoy your cup of coffee that hasn't inexplicably been brewed in a high-molarity sugar solution, and spend the rest of your day secure in the knowledge that in suburban America, we lead a gloriously parasite-free existence. For the curious, read on, and behold the aftermath of... 


Saturday, June 5, 2010

In which I first make contact

Cephalotes pusillus soldier and worker. Image cc Jon Sanders

Today was my first real attempted collecting day -- Scott graciously drove me out to Panga (the preserve) to poke around looking for Cephalotes. Unfortunately, it was cool, drizzling, and overcast, during which time most Cephalotes would apparently rather just stay indoors. So we didn't rack up a huge species count.

But there were ants! Tons of ants! Camponotus, AztecaTetraponera, Pachycondyla, Dorymyrmex, and even some Cephalotes, despite the weather. Pachycondyla marginata is particularly cool, an insanely shiny and dangerous-looking Ponerine (viz. 'badass') that makes a living raiding termite mounds, carrying away their children, and eating them. A quick Google suggests that they may also have magnetite-based internal compasses, the better to find you with, my dearies.

Most of what recruited to our baits were Azteca, Dorymyrmex, and Cephalotes pusillus (pictured). C. pusillus is apparently one of the more common and widespread Ceph. species, and was certainly abundant today -- hundreds were swarming out of their nests, facilitating a nice starter collection for me to practice on. Randomly snapping dead twigs also netted us a few C. maculatus and C. grandinosus, both of which look pretty radically different from pusillus and which I'm excited to get under the microscope.

Like many ant species, C. pusillus shows some fairly apparent worker polymorphism, with some of the sterile, wingless, female workers belonging to larger 'soldier' castes, and others to smaller 'worker' castes. The photo above, which is just about the best of my sorry first attempts at macro photography, serves as a fairly good illustration. In many Cephalotes species (not pusillus), the soldiers have specially developed, door-like disks on the front of their heads, which are used to plug the nest entrance in defense against attack by other insects and the like (they're not very effective against twig-snapping entomologists). The evolution of this polymorphism, and its effect on the diversification and ecology of the genus, form a big chunk of Dr. Scott Powell's ongoing research program.

Tomorrow, we're back in the field collecting from yesterday's pitfall traps. Never have I been so excited about spending a day poking through insects floating in cups of two-day-old piss. I'll keep you posted.

Friday, June 4, 2010

As formigas bom de Uberlândia, parte dois

Scott baiting a pitfall trap with honey water

After sleeping like a rock for twelve hours, I hopped out of bed, took a shower, put on my best khaki entomologist gear, and ran outside to meet Scott (and Flavio, a grad student at UFU) to go out to the field. "The field" this year, in stark contrast to the 2000m-deep hydrothermal vents of last summer, is a nature reserve about 45 minutes down a dirt road from the city. The cerrado (pronounced sa-HA-do -- in Brazilian Portuguese, double r's on the inside of a word sound like h's, single r's on the front of words sound sort of like Hebrew h's (think Challa), d's before e's sound like g's, terminal m's sometimes but not always sound ling ng's, and sometimes you just leave the last few bits of a word as an exercise to the listener, like in French) -- er, the cerrado is a an amazing habitat of tall grass and short trees that covers much of the interior of Brazil, as well as growing patches of what was once the Amazon.

Seriously, the trees are pretty short. As in, sometimes the grass is taller than the trees. This is awesome for studying arboreal ants because it means you really don't have to work too hard. Today, Scott and Flavio and I spent five hours carrying a step ladder around tying pitfall traps (little urine cups filled with honey water and, erm, actual urine as baits) in a bunch of different trees to survey the various kinds of ants living in the various kinds of trees. Since it's winter here, it was only a bajillion (Portuguese: pajilhâo, pronounced 'bush') degrees in the sun, which was nice.

Scott baiting a pitfall trip not with honey water

And the ant diversity in the cerrado is truly fantastic. While we were walking around, I got to see at least three different species of Cephalotes (the genus I'll be working on), two species of Pseudomyrmex, a couple Camponotines (including Camponotus sericeiventris, which is basically the biggest ant you've ever seen and apparently covered in gold dust), Azteca, Atta (the crazy leaf-cutter ants, in an honest-to-goodness trail through the woods), a bunch of generic Formicines, and a really badass-looking predatory ant whose name I've forgotten. 

Also today I saw infinite termites, a toucan, a dead cow, vultures, weird little parasitic flowers that sort of look like strawberries, holes that presumably contained armadillos, and terrifyingly huge funnel webs. The hole at the bottom of the funnel was about as big around as a banana. I hope to myriad deities that I never, ever see what lives in those things. 

More to come soon! Now it is again time for glorious, glorious bed.

As formigas bom de Uberlândia

I've finally made it to Uberlândia, and am ensconced in a delightful little place right next door to the University (Federal de Uberlândia, or UFU). Getting here was quite the trick. Here's what was supposed to happen:

(0 hours): Leave for Boston Logan airport
(2.5 - 6): Fly Miami
(6-9): Drink in airport bar
(9-18): Fly to Guarulhos International Airport, São Paulo, Brazil
(18-20): Clear Immigration, clear Customs, check in with TAM for my domestic flight
(20-21): Fly to Uberlândia
(21-∞): Drink in Uberlândia, catch ants.

Now, here's what actually happened: