The World Ant Tour

  • By Ari Daniel
  • Posted 09.20.12
  • NOVA

A team from the California Academy of Sciences is in the midst of what it calls its World Ant Tour, a 14-month journey to photograph thousands of ant specimens in high resolution and sharp focus. The images are being posted to a free website called AntWeb so anyone can study—or just admire—the world's diversity of ants.

Listen to the story.

American scientists visit European museums to photograph ants in exquisite detail.

Zach Lieberman crouches beside a cement ledge in central London. He holds a little black ant between his thumb and index finger. It struggles to free itself.

"These little ants [belong to] the genus Lazius," Lieberman says. "You'll find them anywhere that you go in London."

img tag

The AntWeb trio examines Lazius niger, one the local species of ants in London. From left to right: Ryan Perry, Zach Lieberman, Liam Ericson. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Ari Daniel / WGBH Educational Foundation

Liam Ericson crouches beside him. "They're very adaptable," he adds. "They're everywhere in this city."

Ericson and Lieberman are part of a three-man team from California now touring Europe to look at ants. But these two are not here to collect ants on the streets. They have come to explore what stands behind them—London's famed Natural History Museum and its vast collection of ant specimens from all over the world.

img tag

The Natural History Museum sits in the heart of London, just south of Hyde Park. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Ari Daniel / WGBH Educational Foundation

Hidden Beauty

Zach Lieberman steps into one of the massive climate-controlled collection rooms at the museum.

"For an entomology nerd, it's an honor to be able to work with a collection like this," he says. "It's heaven. Just thousands upon thousands upon thousands of specimens."

"You get them under the microscope and it just opens up this whole world. That's where a lot of the really hidden beauty is."

Lieberman pulls out one of the 600 drawers filled with ants, each one pinned and labeled. He points to a species from South America that can grow one-and-a-half inches long.

"Oh yeah, Dinoponera–the largest ants in the world," he says.

img tag

Zach Lieberman points to a specimen from the genus Dinoponera, the largest ants in the world. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Ari Daniel / WGBH Educational Foundation

"But there are equally amazing or, in my opinion, usually more interesting ones, that are a millimeter long," Lieberman adds. "Sometimes there [are] ants that you literally can't see, and then you get them under the microscope and it just opens up this whole world. That's where a lot of the really hidden beauty is."

And that is why this team of young entomologists is here: to reveal and document that hidden beauty using a special kind of camera.

Ants the Size of Housecats

The third member of the team, Ryan Perry, places a caramel-colored ant specimen under a microscope. He swivels a knob and brings the head of the ant, Camponotus circumspectus, into view on his computer screen. He is about to take a high-resolution photograph.

The trouble is that only the front of the head, where the antennae are, is in focus. The back of the head is blurry. So he takes a series of photographs, front to back, changing the focus slightly with each image.

img tag

Meranoplus malaysianus Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy

Perry pushes a button, and his camera clicks softly through its sequence. He then uses a computer program to stitch the photos together. The result is a single image where every part of the ant is in sharp focus and can be enlarged on the screen.

"We're basically taking an ant, a tiny little ant, and making it the size of a housecat," Perry says.

He points to his screen where the ant head has just been rendered.

Researchers and lay citizens will now have a means of entering the great ant collections of the world.

"There's the mandible, the hairs around the face, the antennae, the antennal sockets, the eyes," he says. "All these are very important for ID purposes, so it's really important that we get each one of these little hairs to actually show up in focus."

For each species of ant, Perry takes at least three high-resolution photos: the headshot, a side shot, and one from above. His team then sends the images back to the California Academy of Sciences, which posts them on a website called AntWeb. The goal is to document every ant species on Earth.

img tag

Cephalotes varians Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy

A Resource for the Masses

One reason for the online project is that many of the museum specimens are fragile, and physical collections degrade over time. Digital photographs are more durable and reduce the need to transport and handle specimens.

Images can also tell you a lot about an ant species' behavior and biology.

"By looking at the way their bodies are shaped, you can sort of guess," says Zach Lieberman. "You know, if they've got particularly long trap-jaw mandibles, they're probably ambush predators."

Similarly, ants that are slender and eyeless are probably adapted to living underground.

img tag

Trachymyrmex arizonensis Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy

The project's organizers say they are democratizing access to ant specimens. Researchers and lay citizens, regardless of how close they live to a natural history museum, will now have a means of entering the great ant collections of the world.

But taking pictures of all these ants is time-consuming. The trio in London has photographed more than 2,500 specimens already, and still has over a thousand to go. The team works long days and often comes in over the weekend. The team's survival strategy involves caffeine.

"I drank more tea, I think, since I've been here, than I have in my entire life," says Perry.

"I'm a diehard coffee fan," says Lieberman. "We make it strong and we make it plentiful."

And it looks like they will need a lot more caffeine. The Americans first came to London in May and expected to be done by September, but there are many more ants here than they anticipated, so the time in London has been extended.

The team will then head to Genoa and Geneva, and possibly Germany and Russia. That will take about a year. The World Ant Tour organizers will then regroup, check their finances, and plan the next trip–probably to Brazil and Australia.

More on the World Ant Tour

For more global environmental news, visit PRI's "The World."

Related Links

  • Lord of the Ants

    Naturalist E.O. Wilson's fascination with little creatures has led him to some very big ideas.

  • Amazing Ants Game

    Match eight ants—the trap jaw and honey pot among them—to their unique behaviors.

  • Five Reasons to Eat Insects

    Save room for bugs! They're the future of green cuisine.

  • Jaglavak, Prince of Insects

    A Western visitor describes the ancient alliance the Mofu people of Cameroon have with a roaming red ant.