Those of you who haven’t got an ad blocker installed have probably seen this ant floating about in a promotional banner in the ScienceBlogs sidebar:
I can’t speak for how others react to this image. Most, I imagine, filter it out as yet more clutter on the screen. But for a picture of an insect it’s kind of personal for me, and rather odd it to see it splattered across the ScienceBlogs. Sort of like seeing photos of one’s relatives in the news, or the family dog used to advertise pet food.
To set the scene, let me explain that when I took this photo I was road-tripping across southern Australia with the woman who would, a year later, become my wife.
We’d not actually spent much time together to that point. Being from different continents had meant that most of our relationship was carried out from afar, and now we were thrown in for a grand experiment in togetherness with all the emotional rollercoasters that implies. We’d had an epic trip: driving the Great Ocean Road, wine-tasting in Adelaide, we even cuddled a hairy-nosed wombat named Smudge in an animal park in Victoria.
Then there’s the matter of the ant. A famous ant, among myrmecologists. Author Bill Bryson, far more eloquent than I, tells the story of Nothomyrmecia to introduce his book on Australia:
I mention insects in particular because I have a story about a little bug called Nothomyrmecia macrops that I think illustrates perfectly, if a bit obliquely, what an exceptional country [Australia] is. It’s a slightly involved tale but a good one, so bear with me, please.
In 1931 on the Cape Arid peninsula in Western Australia, some amateur naturalists were poking about in the scrubby wastes when they found an insect none had seen before. It looked vaguely like an ant, but was an unusual pale yellow and had strange, staring, distinctly unsettling eyes. Some specimens were collected and these found their way to the desk of an expert at the National Museum of Victoria in Melbourne, who identified the insect at once as Nothomyrmecia. The discovery caused great excitement because, as far as anyone knew, nothing like it had existed on earth for a hundred million years. Nothomyrmecia was a proto-ant, a living relic from a time when ants were evolving from wasps. In entomological terms, it was as extraordinary as if someone had found a herd of triceratops grazing on some distant grassy plain.
An expedition was organized at once, but despite the most scrupulous searching, no one could find the Cape Arid colony. Subsequent searches came up equally empty-handed. Almost half a century later, when word got out that a team of American scientists was planning to search for the ant, almost certainly with the kind of high-tech gadgetry that would make the Australians look amateurish and underorganized, government scientists in Canberra decided to make one final, preemptive effort to find the ants alive. So a party of them set off in convoy across the country.
On the second day out, while driving across the South Australia desert, one of their vehicles began to smoke and sputter, and they were forced to make an unscheduled overnight stop at a lonely pause in the highway called Poochera. During the evening one of the scientists, a man named Bob Taylor, stepped out for a breath of air and idly played his flashlight over the surrounding terrain. You may imagine his astonishment when he discovered, crawling over the trunk of a eucalyptus beside their campsite, a thriving colony of none other than Nothomyrmecia.
Now consider the probabilities. Taylor and his colleagues were eight hundred miles from their intended search site. In the almost 3 million square miles of emptiness that is Australia, one of the handful of people able to identify it had just found one of the rarest, most sought-after insects on earth–an insect seen alive just once, almost half a century earlier–and all because their van had broken down where it did. Nothomyrmecia, incidentally, has still never been found at its original site.
You take my point again, I’m sure. This is a country that is at once staggeringly empty and yet packed with stuff. Interesting stuff, ancient stuff, stuff not readily explained. Stuff yet to be found.
Even though later molecular work dethroned Nothomyrmecia as the Dawn Ant, the tiny town of Poochera, population 24, remains a destination for ant enthusiasts. It’s the only place in the world with any amount of ant-based tourism. And we were two young myrmecologists, in love and on a pilgrimage.
Poocherans know about their special ant. It’s painted on their power poles and adorns their single public restroom. There was talk of building a giant ant to sit by the roadside (kind of like Larry the Lobster), but a town the size of a kindergarten classroom couldn’t muster the resources.
The owner of the Poochera Hotel, it turns out, is quite fond of the ants herself and delights in taking visitors out to find them. After nightfall, she directed us up the road to the cemetery, a place that, like many cemeteries, still preserves a bit of habitat (the original rediscovery site had long been destroyed).
As it turns out, one reason the ant is so rarely seen has to do with its unique ecology. Not only is Nothomyrmecia restricted to a particular type of scrubby forest on a particular type of soil, the ant is a thermal predator. It only forages at night in a narrow temperature range that, inconveniently enough, is just above freezing.
Apparently Nothomyrmecia wait for the forest’s other arthropod inhabitants to fall into a cold-induced torpor, and then they creep along the tree trunks, picking up the frozen treats. This habit necessarily restricts their activity to particular months.
Jo-anne, as she often does, found the first one. A lone queen, walking a tree trunk at 9 pm:
And then, nothing. We looked up and down the tree trunks, crossing the road, back and forth, in the pitch black of a moonless night. At midnight Jo-anne, chilled to the bone, gave in and headed back. After all, she’s already found one. I was also under dressed for the conditions, but decided to stay at it longer. Probably a bit of masculine ego that I needed to find one myself. 1am, 2am, still nothing.
At around 3 the moon rose. My hands were shaking with the cold and I could hardly hold the camera still.
And then, as the moon ascended, there were the slender Nothomyrmecia workers, climbing the trees. I had known that the ants needed cold temperatures. I didn’t know they also needed moonlight. Perhaps those bulbous eyes should have given me the clue. I persisted through my hypothermia for another hour, snapping shots of the ants as they foraged.
Barely able to hold a vial with my stiff fingers, I coaxed one forager in. I still didn’t have any really exceptional shots, but if I had a live model I could probably try a studio session the next day, once I’d warmed up again and gotten some sleep.
And that’s what I did. The winning shot at the top of the post, the one that’s now haunting the sidebars of the ScienceBlogs, came the next day as my very cooperative model preened in front of the lens.