Well, if you were high school student Ziya Akmal, he journeyed--by car--nearly 400 miles from his home in Los Angeles to attend the 12th annual UC Davis Biodiversity Museum Day on Saturday, Feb. 18 on the University of California, Davis, campus.
Biodiversity Museum Day, billed as a Super Science Day, is an annual opportunity to meet the scientists, see their work, and ask questions. It's a great opportunity for students to gain career ideas, said Biodiversity Museum Day chair and co-founder Tabatha Yang, education and outreach coordinator for the Bohart Museum of Entomology.
Akmal said he hopes to enroll in UC Davis, major in entomology, and study ants with Professor Phil Ward, an international authority on ant systematics. Akmal met with the professor in his Briggs Hall office, and talked to three Ward lab members--and one alumnus--at their table in the Academic Surge Building on Crocker Lane.
The Biodiversity Museum Day showcased 11 museums and collections, drawing almost 2000 visitors alone to the Academic Surge Building, where the Bohart Museum of Entomology and the Museum of Wildlife and Fish Biology provided displays. More displays lined the Academic Surge hallway: the Phil Ward lab (ants), the Jason Bond lab (spiders), and the Bohart Museum's separate petting zoos (Madagascar hissing cockroaches and stick insects). Martin Hauser, senior insect biosystematist at the California Department of Food and Agriculture and a regular volunteer at the Biodiversity Museum Day, delighted visitors with a scorpion that he fluoresced.
But across the hall from Hauser were "The Ant People" or "The Myrmecologists" from the Ward lab, who staffed a table and answered questions about not only ants, but a wide variety of arthropods. Doctoral candidates Jill Oberski and Zachary Griebenow and third-year doctoral student Ziv Lieberman were there, as was 2020 alumnus and ant researcher Brendon Boudinot, an Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellow at the Institute of Zoology and Evolutionary Research at Friedrich Schiller University Jena.
Those who listened to Professor Ward deliver a webinar on ants at the 10th annual Biodiversity Museum Day (during COVID-19 pandemic), remembered his presentation (see https://youtu.be/d8eRNsD8dxo.) Ants originated about 120 million years ago (early Cretaceous period), evolving from "wasp-like creatures," Ward said in his webinar. California has some 300 species of ants, but thousands more are in the tropics. Globally, "there may be as many as 40,000 to 50,000 species of ants," but only about 14,000 are described.
Boudinot, Griebenow and Oberski are veterans of UC Davis teams that won national championships in the Entomological Society of America's Entomology Games or "Bug Bowls." The Games, played between university-sponsored student teams, are lively question-and-answer, college bowl-style competitions on entomological facts. To date, UC Davis teams have won four national championships: 2022, 2018, 2016 and 2015.
The UC Davis Biodiversity Museum Day is traditionally held on Presidents' Day weekend. It's free and family friendly.
It involves fossilized male ants, estimated to be about 20 million years and encased in Ethiopian amber.
And a talented young UC Davis doctoral alumnus and ant specialist who's an Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellow at the Institute of Zoology and Evolutionary Research at Friedrich Schiller University Jena.
Basically, an international team scientists led by Friedrich Schiller University Jena and including key researcher and lead author Brendon Boudinot, the UC Davis doctoral alumnus, discovered a new genus of an extinct ant. Their work, international newly published in the journal Insects, is drawing international attention and rightfully so.
The researchers examined 13 individual male fossilized ants that lived during the Miocene epoch and identified them as a new genus of primordial ants. The team used the X-ray light source PETRA III at the German Electron Synchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg, aided by state-of-the-art imaging technology. The name given to the new species and genus: "†Desyopone hereon gen. et sp. nov," to honor the two research institutions involved--DESY and Hereon.
The males resemble species of the relictual lineage Aneuretinae, "but which effectively belong to the Ponerinae, as revealed by advanced 3D-imaging technology (synchrotron radiation micro-computed tomography, SR-µ-CT)," the authors wrote. "We subsequently propose a revision of ant classification at the subfamily level. We also recognize that the new species belongs to a new genus based on recent phylogenomic results that have clarified the generic boundaries of Ponerini ants. Our work, therefore, represents an example of reciprocal illumination between phenomic and genomic data."
"The study was really pleasing from a scientific perspective, as we were able to pass through the whole cycle of hypothesis induction based on the original light microscopy, then deductive prediction for structures we then tested using synchrotron radiation, which allowed us to reject the initial hypothesis—and to go even further!" said Boudinot, an Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellow at the Institute of Zoology and Evolutionary Research at Friedrich Schiller University Jena.
"There are a couple of important elements to the study," Boudinot said. "Based on this discovery, we had to redefine two ant subfamilies and two tribes, and we demonstrate the value of the oft-neglected male ants for understanding evolution through the comparison of mandibles of male and females across the phylogeny, revealing a major trend in mandible evolution. In the bigger picture, what I think is significant is that this work marks a boundary for ant paleontology, where we will increasingly be able to use x-ray micro-computed tomography (µ-CT) to generate 3D models for study and quantitative analysis. Soon, we will be able to analyze these phenomic data simultaneously with genomic data. The study of ant morphology and paleontology is transforming and becoming 'big data'! There will be lots more work to come."
The team, in addition to researchers from Friedrich Schiller University Jena, included scientists from the University of Rennes in France, the University of Gdansk in Poland, and the Helmholtz-Zentrum Hereon in Geesthacht, Germany.
In a University of Jena news release, Vincent Perrichot from the University of Rennes explained: "The piece with these ants is from the only amber deposit in Africa so far that has featured fossil organisms in inclusions. Altogether, there are only a few fossil insects from this continent. Although amber has long been used as jewelry by locals in the region, its scientific significance has only become clear to researchers in the last 10 years or so. The specimen therefore offers what is currently a unique insight into an ancient forest ecosystem in Africa.” Its complicated dating was possible only indirectly, by determining the age of the fossil palynomorphs--the spores and pollen--enclosed in the amber, he added.
"Research results such as these are only possible through the use of state-of-the-art technology," according to the University of Jena news release. "As the genetic material of fossils cannot be analyzed, precise data and observations on the morphology of animals are particularly important. Comprehensive data can be obtained using high-resolution imaging techniques, such as micro-computed tomography (CT), in which X-rays are used to look through all layers of the sample."
A quote from Jörg Hammel from the Helmholtz-Zentrum Hereon: “Since the ants enclosed in amber that are to be examined are very small and only show a very weak contrast in classical CT, we carried out the CT at our measuring station, which specializes in such micro-tomography. This provided the researchers with a stack of images that basically showed the sample that was being studied slice by slice.”
"Put together, these produced detailed three-dimensional images of the internal structure of the animals, which the researchers could use to reconstruct the anatomy with precision," the news release related. "This was the only way to exactly identify the details that ultimately led to the new species and genus being determined."
Boudinot, a two-year Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellow, recently was awarded a Peter S. Buck Research Fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and will begin his fellowship there early next year.
Highly honored for his academics, leadership, public service activities, professional activities and publications while at UC Davis, Boudinot received his doctorate in entomology in 2020, working with major professor Phil Ward. Boudinot's many honors: the John Henry Comstock Award from the Pacific Branch, Entomological Society of America, the highest ESA graduate student honor; and the coveted Robert E. Snodgrass Memorial Research Award (2020) from the Entomological Society of America (ESA).
Boudinot served on—and anchored—three of the UC Davis Linnaean Games teams that won national or international ESA championships. The Linnaean Games, now known as the Entomology Games, are a lively question-and-answer, college bowl-style competitions on entomological facts played between university-sponsored student teams.
- It's one of the habitats of the California state insect, the California dogface butterfly, Zerene eurydice, and its host plant, false indigo, Amorpha californica--or at least it was before massive wildfire swept through there on Aug. 19, 2020.
- It's one of 10 research sites of butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, who has monitored central California's butterfly populations since 1972 and maintains a research website at https://butterfly.ucdavis.edu/
And now, it's the home of a newly discovered ant species.
Myrmecologists Brendon Boudinot, Marek Borowiec and Matthew Prebus, all alumni of the Phil Ward laboratory, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, just published their collaborative research, "Phylogeny, Evolution, and Classification of the Ant Genus Lasius, the Tribe Lasiini and the Subfamily Formicinae (Hymenoptera: Formicidae)," in the journal Systemic Entomology.
The ant world on Twitter is crawling with congratulatory comments and how "awesome" the work is. Wrote one: "Congratulations! Lasius is a familiar genus in Japan, so I will let the Japanese entomologists know about it."
The story behind the story? It all began in the Ward lab. "The Three Ant Men" are now scattered from Idaho to Arizona to Germany.
- Borowiec, who received his doctorate at UC Davis in 2016, is an assistant professor at the University of Idaho.
- Prebus, who received his doctorate at UC Davis in 2018, is a postdoctoral scholar at Arizona State University.
- Boudinot, who received his doctorate at UC Davis in 2020, is in Jena, Germany on a two-year Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellowship to research evolutionary and comparative anatomy.
Looking back, Prebus and Borowiec said that they were both interested in Lasius atopus "due to its strange morphology and lack of phylogenetic data despite the amount of attention paid to the genus, and planned a collecting trip to the type locality in Mendocino County in 2013."
The collecting trip to Mendocino proved unsuccessful. "But because of Phil's extensive collections. we knew of a population of a closely related species in Gates Canyon near the city of Vacaville," Prebus said. This time the trio collected specimens from several colonies at Gates Canyon, which is located off Pleasants Valley Road.
"For all of us, this was a collaborative side project, so after the study was presented, submitted, and rejected, it took the back-burner while people finished their dissertations, got jobs, got married, had kids, and so on," Prebus recalled. "Speaking personally, the pandemic put quite a few of my postdoc projects on hold after the Arizona State University campus closed, but the small upside amongst the inundation of downsides was that I was able to focus on getting some long-haul projects into shape for publication, including the Lasius study. This involved a huge amount of reanalysis of data that we had already collected, but thankfully didn't require generating any new data."
See more on the ant research on the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology website.
(Note that the 7.8 mile Gates Canyon Road, lined with residential homes (private property) and "no trespassing" signs, is a paved county road that leads to the top of Mount Summit, the highest point in Vacaville. It is narrow and hilly. Hikers, runners, walkers and bicylists consider it a challenge.)
If you walk over the Ulatis Creek Bridge, Vacaville, to enter Andrews Park for the Fourth of July celebration on Sunday, you may be surprised.
There's a 12-inch sticker of a carpenter ant at the end of the bridge.
"Pretty cute, says the entomologist," quipped entomologist Lynn Kimsey, director of the UC Davis Bohart Museum of Entomology and distinguished professor, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.
Noted "Ant Man" Brendon Boudinot recognized it immediately as a carpenter ant, of course. He knows his ants, inside and out.
Boudinot, who holds a doctorate in entomology (2020) from UC Davis, studying ants with major professor Phil Ward, is in Jena, Germany for a two-year Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellowship to research evolutionary and comparative anatomy.
"Haha awesome!" he wrote in an email. "Technically, I would consider this imperfectly identifiable because it lacks sufficient detail."
"However, using my sense of ant gestalt and the local fauna, I would say this is a Formica. The mandibles are quite chunky for the genus, so it might be a new species!"
If you ever want to talk ants, Boudinot is your man, the ant man. He wrote his dissertation on "Systematic and Evolutionary Morphology: Case Studies on Formicidae, Mesozoic Aculeata, and Hexapodan Genitalia" and received the coveted 2020 Robert E. Snodgrass Memorial Research Award from the Entomological Society of America (ESA), an award recognizing outstanding research by a PhD student who has completed a research thesis or dissertation in arthropod morphology, systematics, taxonomy, or evolution. (Nominees are scored on honors, awards, achievements and recognition; recommendations of professors and advisors; grantsmanship, publications, creativity and innovation of thesis or dissertation; and contribution to morphology.) Boudinot also drew widespread recognition when he won the 2019 John Henry Comstock Award, the top graduate student award given by ESA's Pacific Branch. The branch encompasses 11 Western states, U.S. territories, and parts of Canada and Mexico.
But back to the Art of the Ant.
Who did it? And why? A myrmecologist or an ant enthusiast or a future entomologist?
Maybe someone who read the April 5, 2021 feature, "Let Us Now Praise Tiny Ants," in the New York Times?
"We share our world with at least 15,000 unique species of ants — although this is surely an underestimate, as we have no way to count the number of species still unknown to science," wrote journalist Brooke Jarvis. "It is hard to express how ubiquitous they are. If you were to put all the animal life in a Brazilian rainforest on a scale, more than one-quarter of the weight would come just from ants. Even the sidewalks of New York City — where pedestrians walk unknowingly above armies of pavement ants that undertake huge, deadly turf wars each spring, dismembering each other in epic battles for territory — are teeming. One study found an average of 2.3 ant species on a given city median, doing the invisible work of making fallen potato chips and hot dogs disappear by the pound. Even in our densest habitations, there are orders of magnitude more of them than there are of us."
So during the Fourth of July celebration in Andrews Park, when fireworks explode and people applaud and cheer, will they remember that ants are all around them? Probably not. Still, as Jarvis wrote there are "more of them than there are of us."
Including one "permanent resident" on the bridge. Yes!
When you "make a mountain out of a molehill," you're exaggerating the severity of the situation.
But if you're an ant, you can make little mounds that might appear--at least to other ants--like mountains.
Quite an attraction at a Vacaville park are colonies of carpenter ants, Camponotus semitestaceus (as identified by UC Davis-trained entomologist Brendon Boudinot).
Park-goers stare at them, dogs sniff at them, and photographers focus on them.
BugGuide.net has a number of images of them. The common name? "The black and orange ant."
According to AntWiki.Org, the "nests are found under stones or in the soil, surrounded by a small mound (few cms up to 30 cms in diameter). The colonies are large with many majors. Workers are active during the night or during cooler times of the day, and tend Homoptera. Nest density can be very high. (Mackay and Mackay 2002)"
They belong to the family Formicidae. Distribution: Western United States as far east as Oklahoma, south to northern Mexico.
We remember reading about a grandmother concerned that her granddaughters, ages 5 and 3, were afraid of "plastic insects." To overcome their "irrational fear of insects," she introduced them to carpenter ants and together they began rearing them. She detailed the project on Formiculture.com.
What a great idea!
Meanwhile, the carpenter ants in the park are doing fine. Just fine.
"You know why they can't get COVID?" asked one park-goer.
"Why?" we asked.
"Because they have antibodies."