Photo Synthesis

Ant-hunting from low earth orbit

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A screen capture in Google Earth reveals a pattern of pasture freckles in Entre Rios, Argentina.

How about a closer look? I drove past the site last week, and the landscape at ground level sports an array of domed mounds, each about half a meter in height:

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And the little engineer behind the mounds?

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Camponotus termitarius, the tacurú ant. This perky Argentinian native (often misidentified as C. punctulatus) frequently invades land degraded by agriculture and is an excellent example of how human land-use changes can convert an innocuous local species into a pest. In this case, the problem is large enough to be tracked from orbit.

Tacurú ants aren’t the first insects I’ve found in Google Earth. Entomology via satellite/aerial photo is something of a hobby of mine (see here, for instance). The next challenge: Australia’s magnificent magnetic termites. I’ve not had any luck with these yet, but if any of you happen to find a spot in Google Earth where they’re visible, post the coordinates in the comments.


Photo details (landscape shot): Canon 17-40mm wide angle lens on a Canon EOS 20D, with a polarizing filter and a hard-stop gradient filter. ISO 100, f9.0, 1/60 sec.

Photo details (ant): Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x macro lens on a Canon EOS 20D. ISO 100, f/13, 1/250 sec, twin flash diffused through tracing paper.

Comments

  1. #1 bioephemera
    April 13, 2009

    I have never heard of insect hunting via Google Earth before. Color me impressed. :)

    And welcome to Scienceblogs!

  2. #2 Kate
    April 14, 2009

    hey Alex

    Magnetic mounds I know of don’t show up on Google Earth – resolution not fine enough…but i do know that Messor capensis nests show up nicely. Check out the landscape around Oudtshoorn, South Africa (e.g. 33° 36’57.32”S, 22° 08’06.38”E)

    cheers!

  3. #3 Alex
    April 15, 2009

    Wow Kate, those nests are really impressive.

  4. #4 Paulino
    April 18, 2009

    In central Brazil those would be Cornitermes cumulans.

  5. #5 metin2
    May 14, 2010

    Magnetic mounds I know of don’t show up on Google Earth – resolution not fine enough…but i do know that Messor capensis nests show up nicely. Check out the landscape around Oudtshoorn, South Africa (e.g. 33° 36’57.32”S, 22° 08’06.38”E)

    cheers!

    thanks…

  6. #6 Nathan
    January 10, 2012

    I’ve been trying to figure out what these spots all around Nairobi are:

    http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?q=Nairobi,+Kenya&hl=en&ll=-1.090628,37.1469&spn=0.009257,0.009645&sll=50.094788,20.157123&sspn=0.01188,0.01929&oq=nairobi,&vpsrc=6&hnear=Nairobi,+Nairobi+Province,+Kenya&t=h&z=17

    And (zoomed out to give some idea of just how pervasive they are):

    http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?q=Nairobi,+Kenya&hl=en&ll=-1.174854,37.162457&spn=0.037028,0.038581&sll=50.094788,20.157123&sspn=0.01188,0.01929&oq=nairobi,&vpsrc=6&hnear=Nairobi,+Nairobi+Province,+Kenya&t=h&z=15

    Ant colonies are the best theory I can come up with, but these things are MASSIVE and my Google-fu hasn’t turned up any evidence of them. The Messor capensis above look fairly similar, but these Nairobi things are larger and more distinct. Anybody know for certain what they are?