I am going to take advantage of figures I prepared for a talk I gave recently, where I had to explain a diagnostic characteristic of ants during the introduction. As I have mentioned before, ants are peculiar among wasps and bees in that their mouthparts are directed forward, rather than downward, in a condition known as prognathy (pro-, anterior, projecting; -gnathus, jaw).
Up until resuming posting a couple of weeks ago you may had thought I was dead. Well, fear not (nor rejoice just yet). I am now happy to report that those previous months of blogging slowness paid off: I got funding for the project I wrote during the summer.
Starting next year I will be working as a postdoc in the laboratory of Patrícia Beldade at the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência in Portugal. This is an evolutionary developmental biology lab, an area of research fondly know as EvoDevo.
EvoDevo ask questions that are of a different nature than the classical Neo-Darwinian ones. For example, in the latter you always presuppose that variation exists in populations and that there is a link between what you see at the level of an organism’s morphology (its phenotype) and the underlying genetics (its genotype), and you study how natural selection then goes to mess things around. In EvoDevo you don’t give these things for granted. Rather, you ask how do new features (novelties and innovations) arise in the first place and exactly how does the link between genotype and phenotype comes about through the developmental process. From there, what you seek is to understand evolution as a process of modification of development.
The lateral eyes of adult insects (and most Arthropods) known as compound eyes, are like no other visual organs found in animals. You can think of our vertebrate eye as a simplified, one-lens photographic camera with a sensor composed of millions of light sensitive cells (and a blind spot, mind you). Well, that’s nothing. Each insects eye is composed of several small photographic cameras, each with its own lens and light sensitive cells (albeit, commonly only six of these). These units are called ommatidia (sing. ommatidium), and the image if formed by the combined information from all of them.1
- To be honest, I have never know if this visual organ is called compound eye because it is composed of several ommatidia or because each ommatidium is composed of several elements. This has never disturb my sleep though. ↩
Last August, before taking a break from blogging, I posted an impossible-to-answer trivia. It consisted of the image above depicting an unidentified mysterious skeletal piece (sclerite) in the shape of a hook, together with two key pieces of information: a) it is entirely internal; b) it comes in pairs. › Continue reading
The head of an ant in frontal view has a couple of holes usually located in the area between the mouth and the place where the antennae are inserted. These holes look intriguing from the outside– Are they part of a sensing organ? Do they secrete a special chemical signal or defense substance through them? Are they use for breeding? The answer is more mundane than that. As I mentioned in an earlier post, most of what one sees in the outer surface of the arthropod’s exoskeleton does not have an external function, but is rather a symptom of the inside working in these wonderful machines. These particular holes mark the places where the cuticle invaginates to form the internal skeleton of the insect cranium known as the tentorium. The external holes produced by these invaginations are thus termed the tentorial pits.
I recently traveled to Andalusia, in the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula, to meet fellow myrmecologists Christian Peeters, from the Université Pierre et Marie Curie, and Alberto Tinaut, from Universidad de Granada. The reason for my trip was that I am fortunately enough to have been invited to collaborate in one of their ongoing projects studying the native ant species Monomorium algiricum. We set out to collect some colonies of this species as well as some others in the genus.
The easiest way to know you are looking at an ant is to pay attention to its waist: if it consists of one or two nicely isolated segments you can be sure you made a positive identification. The basal condition for the family, common to all ants, is to have the second abdominal segment in the shape of a node or scale and distinctly isolated from the rest of the abdomen to form a petiole (remember that the first abdominal segment is coupled to the thorax as the propodeum). The functional advantage of such novel architecture seems to be an enhanced articulation between body segments, and thus greater mobility for a posterior part of the body that bears the ant’s weapons in the form of a sting or other specialized chemical producing organs like the acidopore.1
› Continue reading
- This post is dedicated to my long time friend and colleague Francisco Vergara-Silva ↩
When looking at an arthropod from our vertebrate perspective it is easy to forget that we are looking right at the animal’s skeleton. While our own vertebrate skeleton consists of a series of internal compact pieces with sponge-like cores that support an external layer of muscles and entrails (all nicely wrapped in skin), the reverse is true for arthropods. The arthropod skeleton consists of a series of external plates and hollow tubes that form enclosed spaces within which the internal musculature system attaches1. One consequence of this peculiar body architecture is that most of what we see on the outer surface of this exoskeleton is but a reflection of what is going on on the inside– minute external pits correspond to places where the cuticle folds in to form internal pillars, and innocent looking shallow furrows on the surface are large internal walls where powerful muscles originate. A simple examination of the exoskeleton, therefore, can tell us a lot about particular functions and consequently about an insect’s behavior. › Continue reading
- The only enclosed cavity formed by the skeleton in vertebrates is the cranium, but there are no muscles inside it. ↩
Just as the anterior margin of an ant’s cranium can sometimes be armed with rows of dentiform clypeal setae (that is, especially modified hairs), the lid that closes the insect’s mouth called labrum can bear identical structures. The image above shows two of these specialized teeth-like pieces (in red) flanking an empty broad socket where a third piece used to be inserted.
This image shows the mouthparts of a trap-jaw ant in resting position. The only structures really visible are the prominent elongated mandibles (in yellow) that project forward. The rest of the pieces, laying immediately below, are retracted inside the preoral cavity.
- Tom Waits