Vital role in ecosystem
There are more than 1000 billion ants on Earth. If they were all put on one side of a pair of scales and the world’s total human population on the other, the scales would be balanced. “Ants play a vital role in the ecosystem,” says Fisher. "As they work, they break up the soil and spread plant seeds. They destroy pests and are themselves a source of food for many animals." Ants are everywhere: in the back-yards, in forests, on trees, under the ground and even in the stomachs of frogs.
Role model for human communities
Ants have a distinct social behavior, and each one has its own specific task in the community: some take out the trash, others look after the offspring. When it comes to solving problems, they are real role models for human communities: An ant colony finds problem solutions that would be impossible for individual ants. The colony uses the shortest route to the best food source, delegates jobs to the workers, defends the territory. By watching the swarm intelligence of ants, programmers have gained important knowledge, e.g. for truck routing, making airline flight plans or controlling military robots.
Fig. 1: Proceratium google, also known as the Google ant, was discovered in Madagascar by Dr. Brian Fisher. He named the ant after the search engine Google, as a tribute to the usefulness of Google Earth in his research. The ant has an oddly shaped abdomen, adapted for hunting its exclusive meal of spider eggs.
From pin to walnut size
The diversity of ants is amazing: They can be as small as the point of a pin, or as big as a walnut. Different species also have extremely different lifestyles. Leaf-cutter ants, for instance, collect leaves and take them to their nest. But not, as you might think, to feed their young. Instead, they chew the leaves, thereby producing a substrate for growing the fungus they eat. “Near San Francisco, there is even an ant species that feeds its fungus with plant material that has been digested by caterpillars,” Fisher adds.
Democratization of science
AntWeb has set itself the aim of promoting ant research. Everything known about the species described to date is to be put online and illustrated with photos. This documentation is particularly important for scientists living in tropical countries, where there is little access to scientific data. On AntWeb they can find information on the habitat, distribution of the species, and a large amount of analytic data – a kind of democratization of science.
“We had 5,000 visitors on our website last week. Not all of them are scientists, of course, but people who have watched an ant in their garden and now want to find out more about it," explains Fisher. “This target group is our growing audience. That’s why we set great store by illustrations and will use the ants’ common names as well as their scientific ones.”
Focusing on imaging
At the moment, the entire team is focusing on imaging: 40 specimens a day can be imaged, there are several views of each ant species. A total of roughly 50,000 specimens are awaiting processing. The speed of the imaging systems is therefore a key factor.
"We are extremely satisfied with our Leica imaging equipment. So far, we could only obtain focused images of a limited plane. With the new imaging tool, we are now able to see the whole animals in 3D for the first time," Fisher reports. “The communication between the microscope, the camera and the LAS software is excellent. We are now pursuing the aim of accelerating the imaging process fivefold, which should enable us to achieve our aim sooner." Antweb’s researchers use Leica Z6 and Z16 macroscopes with the Leica LED5000 HDI Dome Illumination, a Leica DFC450 digital camera and the Leica Application Suite (LAS) Montage imaging software.
YouTube video by blpescador, January 1, 2012
YouTube video by blpescador, December 20, 2011
Stocktaking of ant species
The AntWeb team looks for imaging material in large natural history museums, such as the British Museum of Natural History or the Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle in Geneva. The species kept there have already been discovered and identified. Greater effort is required for the field research necessary to take stock of the species in South America, Borneo or Madagascar. "We go in search of ants in all types of habitat, from mountain forest to low land forest, dry forest, wet forest. In the field we apply a standard protocol whereby we first look for ants that live in trees, then the ground dwellers, and then we examine the soil strata. It’s hard to imagine: People think that ants are everywhere. However, some species are so rare that we really can’t find them," Fisher explains.
All the same, the scientists quite often experience the thrill of finding new species. Fisher has just returned from Madagascar, where he has been conducting research for many years, with a list of ant species that have never been seen before. In Madagascar, Fisher set up the Biodiversity Center, a museum specially set up so that entomologists can work on the analysis of the findings supplied by field researchers. Madagascar provides an exceptional picture of the evolution of plants and animals: 95 % of the ants living in Madagascar are not found anywhere else. Many of the lineages have become extinct elsewhere, so it is a unique chance to put the pieces of the evolution puzzle together.
In future, DNA analysis will play an increasingly important role in the identification of new species. Sequencing techniques help the scientists determine exactly where the ant species fits into the system. “We still have a long way to go before we know everything about life on our planet," says Fisher. "So far, we have discovered only 10 % of all living creatures! Most people are more excited about discovering life on mars, but a lot still needs doing down here …".
Brian Fisher about AntWeb in BBC News, June 10, 2012: