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Ant behavior tracked by tiny radio receivers in pioneering scientific study

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Researchers from the University of York are fitting one thousand northern hairy wood ants with tiny radio receivers in a world first experiment to find out how they communicate and travel between their complex nests.

The three-year research project will take place on the National Trust’s Longshaw Estate in Derbyshire a hotspot for these internationally protected ants. This unique site contains more than a thousand nests and is home to up to 50 million worker ants.

Experts will carefully catch the ants and in a few seconds attach a radio receiver of one millimetre to each one. The ants are the size of an adult thumbnail but this process will not interfere with, nor harm them in any way.

Researchers will examine how the ants communicate with each other in their colonies, which are housed in several nests connected by a network of ant highways, with multiple ant queens spread between the nests.

The findings from the research will then be used by National Trust staff on the Longshaw estate to manage the ancient woodland, made up of oak and birch trees, where the ants can be found.

Samuel Ellis, the biologist from the University of York, who will be carrying out the research, said: “This research is about trying to find out how the ants communicate and commute between the vast network of nests and how they travel in this environment.

“The radio receivers act like a barcode to mark out each individual ant. A single ant is not particularly clever but is part of an elaborate system that is clearly performing very effectively at Longshaw.

“The way the ants use this network has important implications for how they interact with their environment. And the way information is passed through the network may even have implications for our information and telecommunications networks.”

Northern hairy wood ant with one of the tiny radio receivers. Image: Changing ViewsFindings will also influence the land management of Longshaw as the ants depend on sap-sucking aphids that favour oak, birch and pine trees but northern hairy wood ant populations struggle in dense woodland of this kind.

The ants use the honeydew produced by gently stroking these aphids to feed their young and in return the ants protect the aphids.

Chris Millner, National Trust Area Ranger at Longshaw, said: “It is fascinating to sit and watch the ants as they go about their business and they are easy to spot on a sunny day as they gather in vast numbers around their nests at this very special site.

“We will be carrying out some forestry work over the next few years, removing lots of conifer trees from modern plantations which will create a larger area of wood pasture, ideal for the ants to move into.

“The study will give us a real picture of where the ants are and how we can improve the habitat for them and other wildlife without causing disturbance.”

The northern hairy wood ant has an international near-threatened conservation status with the two main populations in England found in the Peak District (including Longshaw) and in the North York Moors.

Top ten northern hairy wood ant facts

Wood ants farming aphids. Image: Changing Views

  1. Hairy wood ants (Formica lugubris) are a northern species in the UK, but can be found as far south as mid-Wales.
  2. The hairy wood ant is named so because of its hairy ‘eyebrows’ visible through a microscope.
  3. Hairy wood ants live in mound-shaped nests made out of leaves and twigs and are designed keep the nest warm by trapping heat.
  4. They can defend themselves from predators by spraying formic acid a smelly substance about as strong as vinegar which can blister the skin.
  5. Some birds such as Jays and Green Woodpeckers use this spraying to their advantage, using the formic acid as a cleansing agent to get rid of parasites.
  6. Queens can live for up to 15 years, whereas workers live for about a year.
  7. They are aggressively territorial, and will often attack and remove other ant species from the area.
  8. The wood ant is the largest native ant species of the British Isles. Workers can measure from 8-10mm in length.
  9. The ants are carnivorous and workers can find food by hunting and scavenging, they locate prey by vibration although they can see for up to 10cm.
  10. In the tree canopy Hairy Wood ants farm herds of aphids, milking them for sugar rich honeydew, and protecting them from predators. They also aggressively hunt other invertebrates.

Originally posted by: York University

Devil Frog Vomits Up a New Ant Species

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Finding new species may call to mind images of scientists tracking mysterious footprints in the mud or cutting paths through the dense jungle.

But sometimes, a discovery is as easy as getting a frog to open its mouth and say, “Ah.”

Such is the case for Lenomyrmex hoelldobleri, a new tropical ant species found in the belly of a diablito, or little devil frog (Oophaga sylvatica), in Ecuador.

The diablito, a kind of bright orange poison frog, is known for its love of ants, says Christian Rabeling, a myrmecologist at the University of Rochester, New York. The new ant species is named after Bert Hölldobler, a German evolutionary biologist and ant expert, for his 80th birthday.

Because ant-eating frogs go hunting for bugs in tiny and hard-to-access places, scientists use them as a tool to go where they can’t go. By capturing a wild frog and flushing their stomachs, the amphibians vomit whatever is in their bellies—revealing potential treasures, like the new ant.

“Sometimes people think that our world is very well explored. Nothing could be farther from the truth,” says Rabeling, who led a new study on the ant, published September 19 by the journal ZooKeys.

MYSTERIOUS ANT

Because the only known specimen of L. hoelldobleri is a dead one from a frog’s stomach, scientists know almost nothing about it.

A glimpse through a high-powered stereomicroscope at that ill-fated ant, however, has offered a few clues. (See “Watch: Ants Use Giant Jaws to Catapult Out of Death Trap.”)

“The shape of the mandibles reminds me of forceps,” says Rabeling. This may mean that the ant, which is less than a quarter of an inch long, uses its mouthparts to pry even smaller prey animals, such as termites, out of tight crevices. “But I am just speculating,” he admits.

If the scientists could find living L. hoelldobleri in the Ecuadoran rain forest, the team could submit the little guys to a “cafeteria test,” which means offering an animal multiple prey items to see what it prefers. (See “Surprising Ant ‘Mixing Bowl’ Found in Manhattan.”)

“The difficulty is finding the ants!” says Rabeling.

The little devil frog, obviously, has figured out how to locate them—and for good reason.

Poison frogs get their namesake chemical defenses from alkaloids found in the ants and other critters they consume, says Jonathan Kolby, a National Geographic grantee and director of the Honduras Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Center.

“Physiologists regard ants as mini chemical factories,” adds Rabeling. The insects likely use the chemicals as signals to communicate with other ants in their complex societies.

As for where the ants get their alkaloids, Kolby says some species may acquire it from the plants they eat. But what role, if any, L. hoelldobleri may play in the poison game is anyone’s guess.

BELLY OF THE BEAST

Because many amphibians are endangered—the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists O. sylvatica as near threatened—any research with wild frogs must be done carefully, and only by trained experts, Rabeling notes. (Read more about why amphibians are vanishing.)

 To flush the stomach, scientists insert a soft tube into the amphibian’s mouth and gently fill it with water, prompting whatever the frog has eaten recently to flow out of its mouth and onto a tray. The frog can then be safely returned to its natural habitat.

This is not the first time a new species has been found inside another animal’s stomach, by the way. Kolby points to the example of Dunn’s earth snake (Geophis dunni), which was found in the stomach of a coral snake (Micrurus nigrocinctus) in Nicaragua in 1932.

Furthermore, it seems L. hoelldobleri had some company in the little devil frog’s stomach. The research project that first identified the new ant also found several other as-of-yet undescribed insects.

It seems the little devil’s frog’s belly might be the gift that keeps on giving.

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This summer Dana cruised the inside passage to Alaska. The following are excerpts from his captains log.

Log Entry 6-26-2016

This morning begins day ten of our cruise up the north pacific coast with a destination being SE Alaska. We are currently within the Broughton Archipelago staying at Pierre’s Echo Bay Lodge and Marina. The amazing thing about this place is the effort of one man to construct and maintain such an elaborate facility in the remoteness of these islands. It is a dramatic testament of what a man can create by pursuing a dream with relentless labor.

Last evening we walked up the hill from the landing to discover a fire pit surrounded by swinging benches overlooking the bay with mountains in the distance and sang along with violin and guitar musicians, enjoying the presence of strangers into the waning night. The highlight of this place however was hiking the trail through the woods to visit Billy Proctor, a legendary man who has lived off the forest and sea in these parts for nearly 80 years.

The evening before last we enjoyed a pot luck dinner at Kwatsi Bay, a more rustic dock nestled into a small cove built by Max a former school teacher 20 years prior. One has to wonder if the next generation will possess such spirited entrepreneurs willing to etch out a living and raise families in such minimalist style. Considering the degree of peace and absolute contentment these individuals express I would have to assume other like individuals will follow suit, seeking nirvana in these dark wet forests.

Kwatsi Bay Dock

Kwatsi Bay Dock

Evening cocktails in Kwatsi Bay

Evening cocktails in Kwatsi Bay