Saturday, February 25, 2006

Industrial Strength Taxonomy

Normally I don’t bother writing about articles that appear in subscription only journals and magazines, for obvious reasons. However, I can’t resist a plug for Brian Fisher and his ants from Madagascar.

Antsy in Madagascar” appears in the March 2006 issue of Discover Magazine and is nearly worth the price of admission on its own. Fisher is a new breed of entomologist who has taken a passion for finding, identifying, and cataloguing the world’s species, ants in this case, to an unprecedented level. E.O. Wilson, a man who knows a thing or two about ants himself, describes Fisher’s methods as “industrial-strength taxonomy.”
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Ultimately Fisher’s goal is to get people excited about ants. To identify and catalog all of the estimated 22,000 ant species worldwide (about 12,000 are currently described), to make all of that information freely available online, and, in so doing, to give people the tools and information that allow them to “be as gung ho about [ants] as he is.”

Gung ho about ants? Fine, maybe not the boring little pavement ant, tetramorium caesptium, that used to regularly invade my childhood bedroom when it rained. But what about Meliosstarsus:
It’s the only ant genus where the adults produce silk. The whole gigantic head is a big silk gland. The front legs have been modified into silk brushes, to pull out silk and stretch it to where it is needed. The funniest thing about this ant is that its middle legs go up instead of down because it lives in tunnels. Put it in your hand, and it can’t walk.

Very neat. Not quite neat enough to inspire me to enroll in graduate school in entomology but neat enough to send me poking around on antweb.org, Fisher’s brainchild, long enough to make a contribution of my own.

And that, in the end, is Fisher’s goal: the democratization, and the popularization, of ants.


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