Male ants, the Rodney Dangerfield of ants, ‘don’t get no respect’ until now
An ant invasion in the kitchen usually brings out the killer instinct in the average person. Smash, stomp, spray. No more ants. Unfortunately, those ant encounters neither cement good relationships with the family of ants, Formicidae, nor the world’s family of ant researchers, known as myrmecologists.
“All myrmecologists are united by stories of meeting people and having them ask what they should do to get rid of the ants,” says ant specialist Brendon Boudinot, a doctoral student in Phil Ward’s Department of Entomology and Nematology lab at UC Davis.
Boudinot, who recently won a first-place President’s Award for his presentation on “Revising Our Vision of Ant Biodiversity: Male Ants of the New World” at the 2014 Entomological Society of America meeting in Portland, Oregon, is passionate about ants, particularly male ants.
Like the late Rodney Dangerfield who proclaimed, “I don’t get no respect,” male ants get little respect or attention, said Boudinot, who aims to raise public awareness of their importance and demystify them through his scientific research.
“There are about 12,800 living species of ants described to date,” explained Boudinot, who enrolled in the UC Davis doctoral program after receiving his bachelor’s degree at Evergreen State College, Olympia, Washington, in 2012. “Males are known for only 27 percent of these species, and no identification resource exists for identifying male ants for most bioregions.”
Addressing this concern, he provided the first male-based identification keys to subfamily and genus level for the New World. The keys cover 13 of the 16 subfamilies and 151 of the 324 genera. This, coupled with a global male-based key to all 16 ant subfamilies he submitted in November, will enable male ants to be identified by genus in the New World — encompassing North, Central and South America — for the first time.
“This will facilitate the use of male ants in evolutionary, ecological and taxonomic studies,” Boudinot said. “Moreover, it encourages a shift in the focus of myrmecology, the study of ants, by allowing male-specific collecting methods to be used and will encourage future workers to include males in their research.”
Boudinot’s first research publication, “The Male Genitalia of Ants: Musculature, Homology, and Functional Morphology (Hymenoptera: Aculeata: Formicidae),” conducted as an undergraduate, appeared in the January 2013 volume of The Journal of Hymenoptera Research). Subsequently, he guest-blogged about the research for Alex Wild’s Myrmecos column. Wild, now with the University of Texas, holds a doctorate in entomology from UC Davis and is an alumnus of the Phil Ward lab.
As for telling the difference between a male and a female ant, that’s not easy, even for many ant researchers, Boudinot acknowledged.
“Males and reproductive females, queens, usually have wings and look different from workers. Males are usually differentiated from females by having slightly different morphology. Besides having complex and strange genitalia, male ants also tend to have one more antennal segment, larger eyes, and in general look more ‘waspy.’ ”
The genitalia of male ants are fascinating, he said.
“Think of a Leatherman or Swiss Army knife which has paired muscular claspers, graspers, and sawblades. Male ants have evolved winglessness and worker-like morphology at least five times in the ants, which has historically led to the accidental description of these wingless males as new species. This is a weird phenomenon, which I will be focusing on for a chapter of my dissertation. Why have they evolved winglessness? What are the evolutionary patterns of skeletomuscular reduction? Are there trade-offs for a colony when they lose the ability to produce dispersing males? Anyway, this should be fun.”
In addition to the United States, Boudinot has studied ants in four Latin American countries: Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama, and Brazil.
“Ant-wise, my colleagues and I have collected numerous new species,” he said. A surprising example is a new species of Aphaenogaster he collected in 2010 in the foothills of Mt. Diablo, outside of Danville. He discovered it in a cow pasture less than 100 feet from suburban sprawl in a densely populated part of the state. On a recent trip to Brazil, he discovered the male of the martian ant (Martialis heureka) which is remarkable, as the martian ant is arguably the earliest branching lineage of living ants and yields important implications about the evolution of ants.
Boudinot also discovered a living population of “spider ants” from Brazil.
“These ants live in Southeast Asia and Australia, but there is a fossil species known from Dominican Amber, making this Brazilian species a living fossil.”
Currently Boudinot is collaborating with his major professor, Phil Ward, and several Brazilian colleagues to describe the new species and to place the species in the family tree of the spider ants.
Boudinot looks forward to more ant collecting trips, especially to Brazil.
“I really liked visiting Brazil because I had to teach myself Portuguese, had a tiny budget, was traveling alone, met awesome people, and visited some great places,” he recalled. “I worked in museums in São Paulo, Curitiba (in the South East), and Manaus in the Amazon basin. I got to see the Amazon river and rainforest (and ants), discovered some important things for my dissertation, and spent time with amazing people!”
Boudinot became enthralled with ants while volunteering as an undergraduate for a major research project, Leaf Litter Arthropods of Mesoamerica (LLAMA).
“Initially I was saddled with the job of sorting and curating hundreds of samples which contained thousands and thousands of ants, but later I became involved in the field expedition to Honduras and independent research,” he said. “In one day I ended up individually counting over 8,000 specimens; at this point I forgot why my mentor made me count them.
“I was drawn to ants by their spectacular form and variation; every third genus of ants has some bizarre modification of the mandibles, or some weird structure on their body which is mysterious and in many cases simply unexplained. It took me a long time to become familiar with ants, but eventually I developed expertise in male ants, which very few people study.”
Why should people get interested in ants?
“Ants are incredibly diverse social animals, with over 12,800 species and many more to be described,” the UC Davis myrmecologist said. “Their biology is spectacular; for example, their diet ranges from granivory and predation to agriculture.
“Ants invented agriculture about 55 million years before humans evolved, refining their agricultural practices to a remarkable degree at least 20 million years ago. Ants are known to be agriculturally important in various parts of the world, are used in food dishes in Latin America and Southeast Asia, and are a critical system for studying sociality and numerous evolutionary and ecological questions.”
Boudinot noted that the inaccurate portrayals of ants in Hollywood movies lead to lifelong misinterpretations.
“There is a perception that there are two kinds of ants: red ants and black ants —and sometimes yellow ants — and that the workers of ants include both sexes, as in the Disney movies ‘A Bug’s Life’ and ‘Antz’,” Boudinot said. “Really, ants are incredibly diverse — which is why I am fascinated with them in part.”
Reproductory misinformation abounds in “A Bug’s Life,” the 1998 American computer-animated comedy adventure film, Boudinot said. All worker ants are female and sterile, but Princess Atta marries a male, Flik.
“Flik and Princess Atta wouldn’t have married, and if they did, Flik wouldn’t be the dad as chances are she, as a worker, would be able to lay only unfertilized eggs which would become clonal males.”
If there’s one thing that Boudinot wants youngsters of today to know about ants, it’s this: “There are remarkable things to discover everywhere, and unanswered questions abound. Discovery is borne out of observation, and there is so much to observe in any single square meter of Earth’s surface. I like ants in this respect because they are everywhere. In tropical rainforests ants and termites (another group of social insects) may make up to one-third of the total animal biomass, dwarfing that of vertebrates such as panthers, birds, and amphibians. There are about 90 species of ants in Sonoma, Napa, Yolo and Sacramento counties alone, including fungus-cultivating ants.”
Boudinot encourages people to check out AntWeb.org.
“This website is a digital database of thousands and thousands of species of ants, many of which look like they are extraterrestrials or are strange beasts out of nightmares,” he said, adding “Okay, and some of which are just fluffy and adorable.”
Ants and honey bees, which belong to the same order, Hymenoptera, are more similar than once believed.
“In 2013 scientists discovered that ants are more closely related to bees and bee-like wasps than to yellowjackets and other wasps,” Boudinot said. “Our knowledge of this relationship is so new that we haven’t even had time to reevaluate their physical similarity.
“Ants are terrestrial, with a suite of adaptations for walking, while bees are highly efficient flyers. Bees are much more diverse than most people believe. In addition to the honey bee, there are about 20,000 described species of bees, not all of which are highly social like the honey bee. Unlike bees, there are no known non-social species of ants.
“Bees are critical pollinators; ants are really poor pollinators. Ants are really good at protecting plants, though. Tight ant-plant mutualism has evolved several times, with the plants providing homes and food for ants while the ants provide protection for the plants from insect and vertebrate herbivores as well as competitor plants.”
After receiving his doctorate in entomology, Boudinot aspires “to be a professor so that I may continue to do research and to fulfill my love of teaching and mentoring.”
In the meantime, “I am just trying to learn as many valuable skills as I can while feeding my burning fascination with ants and insects in general. I have gained so much in terms of learning how to see and think about the natural world. Above all, I want to communicate this knowledge to people in whatever manner I can.”
“There is a logic to the biological universe,” Boudinot said, “and once you start to pick up this logic, interpreting the complex tapestry of life becomes a routine and deeply enjoyable task.”