Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Army ants!

Here's Labidus, another under-appreciated army ant. These workers are
guarding a foraging trail.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Ant vs. termite

It seems like the winner of this setup is generally 'ant,' but here's
a cool shot of a termite soldier getting one in for the woodeating
cockroaches, squirting some sticky goo onto the ant. The ant, as best
I can tell, is <i>Acanthostichus</i>, a nifty subterranean army ant in
the subfamily Cerapachynae.

This one didn't end well for Team Termite -- when I came back a few
hours later, the queen was in a giant pile of dead workers at the foot
of the tree.

Monday, June 27, 2011


In between the endless gut dissections, one of the things I've been
learning a lot about this summer is the power of post-processing.

For example, check out this shot of a neat little mantis that my
friend Gabe found. The first image is straight from the camera; the
second, after about 5 minutes of tweaking. To get the second image, I
retouched to get rid of sensor dust spots, tweaked the color
saturation and white balance, and bumped contrast and exposure just a
bit. The difference is startling!

As something of a bonus, I'm finding that this has really focused my
attention on the things you _can't_ change in the 'darkroom;' namely,
focus and composition. Aperture (Apple's photo program) makes it easy
to get rid of sensor dust, but can't recover the end of the mantis's
left antenna, or bring the focal plane forward a mm to where it really
should be. Those imperfections will stay in this image, and
recognizing that is making me a (marginally!) better photographer.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Jungle lesson #1032

Don't leave chocolate half eaten while you get distracted looking for
ants. When you think about it again, a cursory inspection in the
failing evening light may not reveal the hundreds of tiny red ants
enjoying your dessert, which will sting your unsuspecting tongue
enthusiastically on their way down.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Surface tension, part 2

And now for something a bit more abstract. This little Cephalotes
spinosus worker landed feet up in the dissection dish, holding a globe
of water in her legs. This doesn't happen often -- I've dissected more
than a thousand ants so far this summer, and never seen it!

Capturing with the camera what I saw with my eyes was pretty
challenging -- any flash at all washed out the beautiful reflective
colors on the water's surface. For photo geeks, this was taken
handheld with natural light at about 2X on a Canon 20D with 65mm MP-E
macro, at 1/60 sec, f6.3, and ISO 1600.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Yet another spider

And here's another one!

Another spider

Despite my visceral fear of spiders, they make great subjects.
Especially cute little jumping spiders, wrapped up in silk blankets,
waiting for their next houseguest...

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Bailing out

We had a huge thunderstorm the other day. The lab flooded, but just a
bit! But we weren't the only ones affected -- these wasps appear to
have gotten some water in the nest. Lacking buckets, they bail it out
with their crops. I just love the refracted image in this droplet!

Friday, June 17, 2011


Busy time in the jungle. Here's a neat spider!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

This is not an ant

It's actually an ant-mimicking staphylinid beetle! But it sure had me
fooled -- it took an email to a friend of mine to track it down. It
must take some kind of selection pressure to make a beetle look enough
like an ant to fool a wannabe entomologist with a stereoscope! This
little critter turned up in my aspirator after catching some army
ants, along with an also-but-not-quite-as-impressive ant-mimicking

The jungle is crazy: it's crazier the longer you look, crazier the
smaller you go, crazy all the way down...

Sunday, June 5, 2011


One thing about the jungle: everything grows fungus.

Sometimes, it's fluffy white stuff growing on your glasses case.

Sometimes, it's zombie fungus that grows into your head, takes over
your brain, and forces your undead body to grab onto a leaf while it
grows a giant mushroom out of your back to infect your nestmates.

For whatever reason, this particular section of the trail had a
preponderance of the latter, including a bunch of unfortunate
Camponotus workers decorating the undersides of leaves, and one
exceedingly encrusted moth.

Fortunately, the fungi in my cabin only seem to be interested in my
inanimate belongings. At least so far...

Wasps with wax

Here's a fun little bit of natural history: these wasps have built
their paper nest underneath a big leaf, and are now building a sort of
wax floor underneath the nest. I have no idea why -- neither does the
wasp guy who's sharing our lab space! -- but it's pretty cool.

This particular plant seems to be perfect for little paper wasps, as
there are no fewer than four nests hanging under various leaves. This
can also make photographing them a challenge -- not only do I have to
worry about the wasp nest three inches from the front of my lens, I
have to worry about the nest in the leaf right next to my head!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

More orthopterans

They're just so cute!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Surface tension

The world behaves a little differently at the scale of ants. For
instance: never having to look around for a bucket! This Ectatomma
worker is bringing some delicious ant bait back to the nest to share
with her sisters.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Los tres amigos

We've been hard at work catching ants! In the jungle, this can be both
trivial and an enormous challenge: ants are absolutely everywhere, so
if you're not picky, you hardly have to do more than open your
collection tube; on the other hand, if you want several colonies of
the same species, you may find yourself spending a lot of time chasing
ants through the foliage.

Here's a fun shot of some turtle ants, <i>Cephalotes atratus</i>,
tending membracid leafhoppers. <i>Cephalotes</i>, the genus on which
my research is focused, are a bit of a mystery -- most of the time,
they don't really seem to be doing anything more than walking around
and maybe licking a leaf every now and then. Consequently, they're
something of a challenge for the behavioral ecologist! <i>C. atratus</
i> is a rare and delightful exception. These fabulously spiky ants are
not only conspicuous (almost an inch long!) and abundant, they can
often be found 'farming' other insects for their sugary secretions.
These membracids may even be mimicking their spiky black farmers!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Macchu Picchu

A brief episode of internet connectivity -- the satellites must be
behaving today!

Here are a few shots from our hike to/in Macchu Picchu -- the city at
sunrise, a view of the main courtyard bathed in fog, and a shot of
Lina gazing out across the valley from inside the ruins.

Despite being absolutely overrun by tourists, this city is one of the
most incredible things I've ever seen in my life. The Incas were
incredible -- their stonework, in hard granite on the bleeding edge of
the void, is absolutely mind-boggling. Staggering. What would this
civilization have looked like had it not been cut off in its infancy
by invaders from Europe?

We had the good fortune to get to Macchu Picchu by way of a short
2-day hike through the high mountains (a sort of unofficial Inca
Trail), and were lucky enough to be accompanied by the lovely Jai and
Kansa, as well as our incredible guide, Ruben. SAS Travel in Cusco
puts together a really fantastic trip if you're in the market. J & K,
if you're reading this, I got some great photos, and will share them
all when I have a decent connection again. Hope you're enjoying Rio!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The jungle

The beer is warm, the bugs are good, and the internet is bad.

Why leave?

Monday, May 16, 2011

The air

is much thinner at 3000 meters. Miraculously, flights happened, rides caught, customs cleared, and now Lina and I are spending a few hours acclimating to the altitude before starting a 3 day hike to Macchu Picchu EARLY tomorrow morning.
Flying into Cusco can be an adventure -- the city is built in a relatively small valley amongst some relatively steep mountains, and the pilot has to do some real maneuvring to get the plane down and lined up. On the way out, the descent was brilliant -- we weaved in and out of enormous, fluffy clouds that hovered just over the valley, making tight banking turns to quickly drop altitude. Pretty fun stuff.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Mobile blogging

Apparently I can download an 'app' for my 'phone' which will allow me to easily 'blog.' It will also indicate my location, Tweet, Facebook, YouTube, and maybe also make me breakfast?

the view from the 'service road'

Location:Service Rd,Boston,United States

On the road again

Some sort of Myrmicine from near Walden Pond -- Aphaenogaster, perhaps?

Here we go again!

Summer's here, which means it's time to ditch North America in search of interesting biology. That is to say, welcome to field blogging season!

This year I'm returning to South America, where I'll once again be climbing trees, catching ants, and exploring the mysteries of their microbes. My journey takes me back to the tropical rainforests of southeastern Peru, at the Centro de Investigacion y Capacitacion de Rio los Amigos (CICRA), but it's going to take me a few days to get there! In the meantime, expect airports, mountains, and ancient Incan ruins...