This is a contributed piece by Kyle W. Gray.
Still Pinned Up
By Kyle W. Gray
Our brains are wonderful, but they forget. That’s why I decorate my room with reminders of what I’ve experienced and learned, but more importantly, who has inspired me along the way.
Five years ago, I was convinced without doubt that ants are marvelous beasts and worth attention. That’s why I’m now an Evolutionary Biology Ph.D. student studying ant diversity and evolution.
Pinned up on my wall, above my little brown desk in the corner of my room, is a 1976 article of insightful Australian ant natural history: “Probing Ponerine Ants” by ant taxonomist Dr. Phil Ward. This was Phil’s very first scientific publication. Since “Probing Ponerine Ants”, Phil has had a long and successful career producing a panoply of taxonomic revisions of various ant groups, most notably of the Formicinae, Myrmicinae, and Pseudomyrmecinae subfamilies. Phil’s work has contributed immensely to our understanding of ant diversity and evolution.
“Probing Ponerine Ants” is an article for the lay public of Australia that highlights the natural history of various Rhytidoponera ant species. These ants are some of the most conspicuous ants in Australia because of their beautiful iridescent blue and/or green coloration. However, they are popularly known as garden pests due to their abundance and pugnacious nature.
Occasionally, while working at my little brown desk in the corner of my room, my attention locks onto to the pinned up “Probing Ponerine Ants.” I am reminded of fond memories of mentorship, a lesson learned, and the moment I was bequeathed this article of insightful Australian ant natural history.
I was an undergraduate assistant in Phil’s lab at the University of California Davis for most of 2015 and the first half of 2016. One afternoon in the lab, I was point-mounting ants for then-graduate student Marek Borowiec (now an assistant professor at University of Idaho), when Phil walked into his office and called me over.
I got up from the microscope bench and made the ten-step journey over to Phil’s office, which contains a modest desk and many large cabinets harboring an almost countless number of pinned ant specimens. Phil retrieved some stapled pieces of paper from a file cabinet next to his desk and handed them over to me. Based on their beige-like color, I could tell these pages have seen more years than I.
I read the title aloud: “Probing Ponerine Ants.” I looked back at Phil waiting for an explanation. Phil is not one for ambiguity.
“Kyle, this is a little piece I wrote for the Australian Museum about the biology of Rhytidoponera ants when I was a graduate student back in the 70’s.”
It was early 1976 when the Australian Museum contacted Phil about contributing an article to the upcoming volume of Australian Natural History. At the time, Phil was about half way into his Ph.D. studies at the University of Sydney. Phil’s dissertation explored the population biology of the Rhytidoponera impressa group, a complex of rainforest species in eastern Australia. Phil was interested in their colony structure, which he investigated through a combination of field and lab work. During his field work, Phil paid close attention to the ecology and behavior of the ants. These observations were eventually shared in “Probing Ponerine Ants.”
As a budding ant biologist at the time, I was enamored by the gesture. The next thing I said was completely out of my control.
“Wow! Can you sign it for me?” This was the first time in my life that I asked for someone’s autograph—and meant it. Acting like a giddy fanboy is not part of my normal repertoire, so my knee-jerk response surprised me as well.
Phil, after a light chuckle, kindly agreed and penned his signature in the top-right corner of the first page directly beneath the title. He also added the quintessential Aussie slogan ‘Cheers, mate!’
Above the title and his signature, Phil noted the year of publication, the name of the journal, the volume, and the page range:
1976. Australian Natural History 18: 384–387.
I thanked Phil for the autographed reading material and went home to peruse the article.
Phil begins “Probing Ponerine Ants” with the well-known reputation of Rhytidoponera ants as potential garden pests, but then dives into their peculiar biology and colony structure. In most ant species, the queen, born into her special role, is physically different from the workers. Queens are often larger than workers and have active ovaries – thus, they can reproduce whereas workers are sterile. This is a little different in Rhytidoponera ants. In some Rhytidoponera species, workers are reproductively active and compete for the queen’s egg-producing position of the colony.
Phil tells the story of these ants using terms such as “blessed” and “handsome” to describe their appearance and behavior. By doing this, Phil paints a beautiful picture of the Australian ant fauna, especially of Rhytidoponera ants, in a biologically succinct way. I have rarely read such endearment for people let alone ants. More often, I hear folks refer to these beautiful organisms as “annoying” and “very annoying”.
Unfortunately, out of excitement during my first read of the article, I scribbled an abundance of notes along the paper’s margins and even corrected the title on the first page to reflect current ant taxonomy (Rhytidoponera is now in subfamily Ectatomminae, not Ponerinae).
In a blink of an eye my brain recognized that I was not partaking in simple notetaking but rather vandalizing an original print manuscript by one of my ant mentors! I learned a valuable lesson from this mistake: if you take notes on an original print manuscript, use a piece of loose-leaf paper! Better yet, use a text editor on your fancy computer!
Now, I look at my 1976 autographed and original-print copy of “Probing Ponerine Ants.” I cringe at the scribbles on the front page and laugh at the lesson I learned. But then I am reminded of the mentorship Phil and his students, Marek Borowiec, Brendon Boudinot, and Matthew Prebus, provided me that has served as a solid foundation for my current studies as a graduate student. They provided wisdom, a solid work ethic, and, above all, a contagious passion for ants. For these reasons, I am forever appreciative and grateful of Phil and his students. For these reasons, “Probing Ponerine Ants” is still pinned up on my wall, above my little brown desk in the corner of my room.
Kyle W. Gray began an Evolutionary Biology PhD in Fall 2017 as part of the Christian Rabeling Lab at Arizona State University. Gray’s research began with studying symbioses involving fungus-growing ants in southwestern North America. His current research explores biogeographical patterns of socially parasitic ants and ants of the South Pacific.