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.
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.
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.
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.”
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