The Case of the Malagasy Mystery Ants

A few days ago I noticed the search term "Malagasy Mystery Ant" showing up in the stats for my other blog. This puzzled me, as it wasn't a phrase I was familiar with. So I googled it.

All mentions of the term trace back to a caption in the New York Times slide show from last week. Goodness. I- your humble blogger- had coined it myself, in a haze of deadline fever while submitting images for the slide show. And then, apparently, I forgot all about it.

i-c5cded8db835c3731d731104ffebfc55-oberthueri3.jpg

Mystrium oberthueri

Am I going senile already? I hope not.

The problem with insects is their sheer number. There are millions of species. How many million we can't say, and our guesses even as to the appropriate order of magnitude are tentative.* Certainly, there are too many for any language to absorb into common parlance. Most pass their lives entirely unnoticed by humans, and any specialists who happen to work on them are content with the scientific names. This is to say, most insects have no common name at all.

So when pressed to produce a memorable English name in a situation where the Latin may be inappropriately technical, such as a newspaper caption, entomologists often simply invent something. Like, Malagasy Mystery Ants.

i-475f32a74eeafa8820355cc9426538f0-oberthueri5b.jpg

In my defense, the name is appropriate. We know very little about the biology of the genus Mystrium. These uncommonly seen ants occur in tropical regions throughout the old world but are most diverse in Madagascar. They are cryptic predators, odd little creatures belonging to an ancient radiation of ants, the Amblyoponinae, that are best known for their habit of drinking the hemolymph of their own larvae. Some species have an odd reproductive quirk whereby the fertile females are not the bulky queens common to most ants, but lithe red insects dwarfed by the large black workers that leave the nest to pursue prey.

i-e8413158a7fbbadb1c243db8e2685ab8-Mystrium11.jpg

I've never understood why some natural history societies attempt to regulate common names. There's no point. We already have universal nomenclature in the Linnean system, and maintaining two sets of regulated names is redundant. The beauty of common names is that they aren't regulated, leaving them fluid, free to reflect local sensitivities.

*for more on the diversity of life, see Rob Dunn's book Every Living Thing.

More like this

By request, I have now organized the ant photos by subfamily.  This mimics the arrangement from the old site.  For the smug-muggers out there who want to know how it works, I basically set up an "old journal" gallery and put the genus names and links into the caption box.  I used CSS to set all…
Today, it's the New York Times. Consider this Q & A: Q. Can the tiny ants that visit me every spring hop like a flea? Sometimes I look down and suddenly there one is, working its way across my anatomy. A. It is possible. Several of the estimated 10,000 to 14,000 identified species of ant are…
Battle of the Pavement Ants, definitely not Tetramorium caespitum While walking through the park yesterday, I happened across a sidewalk boundary dispute between two colonies of Pavement Ants.  As is their habit, these little brown ants opted to dispense with diplomacy in favor of all-out warfare…
Aphaenogaster cockerelli, Arizona Here's a new study in Current Biology from Adrian Smith, Bert Hoelldobler, and Juergen Liebig: Abstract: Cheaters are a threat to every society and therefore societies have established rules to punish these individuals in order to stabilize their social system […

What a strange ant. Looks nice though. :)

By liudvikas (not verified) on 06 May 2009 #permalink

Well, the type species of the genus is Mystrium mysticum Roger after all, so I think your subconscious just aptly kicked in under the deadline pressure.

As for why the scientific name? Roger does not explains but marvels at the beauty of its morphology. I guess your explanation is right and he was as puzzled by this ant back when he described it in 1862 as we still are today.

My 4 year old and I have been enjoying your excellent ant photography. Apparently, nothing is more fascinating to small males of our species than seeing tiny bugs magnified to monstrous proportions on the computer screen!

Imagine my son's delight when we found our very own bug to photograph and show off. Any hints on identifying beetles for those of us who are not entomologists? We live in far far Upstate NY and have never seen the like here before. (you can see the beetle here: http://lunasbaublebilities.blogspot.com/2009/05/maxxs-bug.html

If author is reading this, please answer the question:
What equipment are you using for those amazing photos, I bet it is beyond my finances, but still I'm curious.

By liudvikas (not verified) on 06 May 2009 #permalink

Alex describes his technique in other posts, but his main weapon is a Canon digital camera and this:
http://www.luminous-landscape.com/reviews/lenses/mp-e-65.shtml

Everything else is technique and the way to get to carnegie hall: practice, practice and practice.

(And willing to get bitten by ants waiting for the perfect shot)

If author is reading this, please answer the question:
What equipment are you using for those amazing photos, I bet it is beyond my finances, but still I'm curious.

thanks..

Roger does not explains but marvels at the beauty of its morphology. I guess your explanation is right and he was as puzzled by this ant back when he described it in 1862 as we still are today.

If author is reading this, please answer the question:
What equipment are you using for those amazing photos, I bet it is beyond my finances, but still I'm curious.