The tropical fungus-growing ants of Madison, Wisconsin

I apologize for the slow blogging this weekend. We took a little road trip up to beautiful Madison, Wisconsin and were too busy with bratwurst, cheese, beer, and roller derby to bother with the internet.

i-11915880d475b9f47b043f765ca27f1a-cephalotes49.jpg

Atta cephalotes in the fungus garden

The University of Wisconsin is home to Cameron Currie, whose lab is at the cutting edge of insect-fungus-microbe evolutionary biology. Cameron is one of the people who first realized that the classic ant/fungus mutualism was more complex than just the insect and the fungus, involving all sorts of microbes, including some that live on the ants' exoskeleton.

While we were in town, Cameron was kind enough to give me and my bag of camera gear access to his ant room. This is, as you might imagine, a room full of ants. Dozens of large tupperware containers stacked several high, each holding a thriving colony of leafcutters and their spongy fungus gardens.

I've only just now started processing the photographs, but here's a teaser. I'll be posting more in the coming weeks:

i-8d0c8a57f36bd53e959adbcd9b96344a-echinatior3.jpg

Acromyrmex echinatior

i-1a3da6aadb613ba02261fe76a5683b70-octospinosus5.jpg

Acromyrmex octospinosus

photo details (top photo):
Canon EOS 50D camera

Canon 100mm f2.8 macro lens

ISO 200, f/8, 1/125sec

Indirect strobe bounced off a white board




photo details (middle and bottom photos):

Canon EOS 50D camera

Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x macro lens

ISO 100, f/13, 1/250sec

Diffused MT-24EX twin flash



More like this

leafcutter ant mating swarm, Arizona The sparkle of these insects' wings was captured by pointing the camera at the sun while standing behind the mating swarm.  I find backlighting to be one of the most pleasing effects for translucent wings. photo details: Canon 100mm f2.8  macro lens on a…
Take a photograph, of course: Tapinoma sessile, the odorous house ant photo details: Canon EOS 50D cameraCanon MP-E 65mm 1-5x macro lens ISO 100, f/13, 1/250sec
Anochetus paripungens trap-jaw ant carrying a cocoon, Australia photo details: Canon EOS 50D camera Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x macro lens ISO 100, f/13, 1/250sec twin flash heads placed in front and behind the subject.
...just for you. Cimex lectularius, the common Bed Bug More photos from this series are posted here. photo details:Canon EOS 50D cameraCanon MP-E 65mm 1-5x macro lensISO 100, f/13, 1/250sec

That Acromyrmex echinatior shot is amazing.

These are great. I look forward to seeing your other pictures. As for Madison, sorry we couldn't have given you better weather. It hit 75+ for a few days back in March and the past weekend was the first stretch of cold, rainy weather that we've had this spring.

Ted: that's a keen insight. Attine ants have lost their sting and, unlike most stingless ants, haven't compensated by stepping up with chemical weaponry (perhaps it might complicate the delicate ecological balance of their fungus gardens?). So they are heavily armored instead.

Wow, you made our ants look great. I wish I would have gotten the chance to meet you while you were in Madison. I've been a big fan of your photography ever since I started in the Currie Lab.

Ah fantastic Alex, Martin and Howard will be filming them in a couple of weeks! I love your blog, I come here all the time!

Nadege, the researcher at Ammonite