I returned home from a much-needed vacation late last night, and even though it was a family trip I have much to share from the past 10 days. However, I must remain coy about where I was for the time being so that I may present this little quiz:
I had planned to post this yesterday, but the best title I could come up with – “Monday Myrmecine Mystery” – was just too similar to a Monday tradition on another blog that we’ve all grown to love. (Also, I just couldn’t get to it.) No longer constrained by an M-themed title, I came up with this alternative¹ that I hope will make the 12-year old boy in each of us giggle aloud.
¹ Pismire (from pissemire) is an archaic name of Scandinavian origin for ant. Derived from pisse urine (referring to the smell of formic acid) + mire ant.
I expect members of the Formicine Guild will jump all over this, so I should probably make this quiz about more than just the name of the ant (which I don’t know, so does that make this an illegal quiz?). Maybe I should offer double points to non-myrmecologists for a proper ID (but then, I would need the consensus of the myrmecologists – perhaps a conflict of interest?).
I could also offer points for correctly guessing what the ant is carrying – which again I wasn’t able to figure out, so I guess points will have to be awarded for the most plausible explanation. What I do know is the ant carried this carcass while meandering aimlessly over the same patch of ground – occasionally stopping very briefly to dig its jaws into it before resuming its wanderings. I followed the ant for about 10 minutes, and it never left an area of about 1 square foot – no nest nearby that I could see, no direction to its travels, no apparent purpose to its labors.
I most definitely know where I was, so firm points are on offer for correctly guessing the answer to that question – either on the basis of the ant ID or the above photograph of its habitat. Yes, that is snow on the ground – lots of it!
Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010
69 thoughts on “Pismire Puzzle”
From the description of the ant’s behavior, I believe it is a member of rare ‘Luring’ ant family, the Allettarae. They are known to carry insect parts in this rather flaunting (not “meandering”, as Ted incorrectly describes it ) manner as a means of attracting insectivorous birds such as the grey jay. Once the unfortunate bird descends to investigate, the ant’s compatriots leap from their hiding places in the rocks and latch on to the hapless bird, which is soon restrained and de-feathered. The plucked bird, otherwise unharmed (but no doubt embarrassed) is allowed to hop away because the ants are only interested in the feathers. The downy feathers are used to line the subterranean nest chamber, an understandable method of insulation in this cold montane environment. The firm quilled feathers are dismembered and interred in deeper chambers, where they are collected to act as a food source for herds of feather mites. (I believe these are Pinnaephilopsis garrulus, but I am sure Dave will correct me if I am wrong)
Contrary to popular belief, the ants do not feed on the actual mites, but rather on what they excrete, much the same as many the many Formacines which feed on aphid honeydew. This type of ant/mite mutualism is unique and known only this one species of ant.
By now the many myremecologists which read this blog will be jumping up and down and waving their arms to get my attention. They have already determined that, yes, indeed, this a specimen of Lasius acarileccari. And of course, from the habitat we can determine that it is of the sub-species, ‘montanus’.
As for the location, it has got to be the Pyramid Lake Geological Area in the Sierra Nevada.
So….is this worth 30 points? I bet the slug-a-bed pismireologists will be really upset that I beat them to the punch on this quiz!
Now I must return to bed to ponder how I am going to spend my winnings…
If that is, in fact, what’s going on in those pictures, consider me gobsmacked. COOL.
I’m glad you figured out this is not what’s going on, but I’ll still consider you gobsmacked 🙂
In fact, I’m deducting 5 points from your account and giving them to Adrian 😀
Okay, you can have ’em back – but only because Adrian’s tale was sooo tall!
I think YOU should be detucted points for your “Ostrich Ground Beetle” nonesense. 😛
(Points for spelling don’t count)
Now I think this was a cleverly constructed yarn. Boo.
I’m useless with ants…
are those extra legs belonging to a roach, or a larger ant? Those huge coxae seem to indicate a speedy running/walking insect…
I have been outed!! Yes, I made the whole thing up. A poor nights sleep on my part, the pismire title and Ted’s allusion to giggling 12 year olds pushed me over the edge of normalcy. I will stand aside to allow the myrmecologists (and one perhaps one acarologist) to correct things…I was beginning to feel guilty for misleading people!
It was a really GOOD yarn, though. I wish it WAS true.
I’m thinking a larger ant, but really I don’t know.
Great God of Aesop – what a fable!
Yes, absolutely – this is worth 30 points. In fact, this should have been the post, and my post the extraneous comments.
In the only detractive comment I can make about this, your good deductive reasoning got you close on the location, but Seabrooke’s got you beat there.
Man, I’ve got to read this again!
Perhaps the myrmecologists should face the challenge of identifying the disembodied legs instead of the live ant.
Re: disembodied legs: I had to leave something for the entomologists to respond to…let me know if you need a hint.
Okay, so where are the myrmecologists? I think the rest of us have proven we don’t know squat about ants.
Darn – Adrian beat me to it – NOT! I’ve seen ants take a dead bird apart, but plucking live birds? Awesome.
As for the location, based on trees, I too believe it is the Sierra Nevada. And since there’s snow on the ground, it must be above about 3,500 feet.
Yes, the Sierra Nevada, but way higher!
A thought on the seemingly random behaviour: in an article by E.O. Wilson (Scientific American, 1963), he says that worker ants, if they lose the pheromone trail they were following, will travel in small circles until the trail is either found, or another worker intercepts the “lost” ant by antennae touching and guides it back to the trail.
Now that seems reasonable…
I thought about that – it’s actually why I watched for so long (well, actually because I had to take about 25 shots to get these three that were even halfway in frame and focused, but that’s another story). It just seemed odd that it kept covering the same ground, crawling over the same rocks even – it didn’t seem to expand its range. There was another black ant in the same general area doing the same thing. I was hoping they would meet to see what they did, but they never got close enough to each other.
I might as well admit it – ants are really hard to take pictures of!
Formica a pretty skittish for ants. They see me coming from about 8ft away and either freeze or run to hide. Try to get pictures of an ant in the Myrmicinae subfamily. They tend to have interesting textures and are easier to get to hold still.
I don’t think he (er… she) was bothered by me, at least not after I was propped up on my elbows for a time just watching. It… just… never… stopped!
I’d know that habitat anywhere. And recalling last year about this time a series of posts wherein you mentioned you wanted to retire to last year’s vacation destination, I’d guess this was Lake Tahoe. Because of the angle of the slopes and the fact that you’re looking at mountain, not lake, and the angle of the shadows of the trees, this is either at the north end, looking west in the afternoon, or at the southern end of the west side, looking south in the morning. Or it could be you weren’t in the lake basin proper, in which case I don’t know where it is. 🙂
As for the ant… beats the heck outta me. Though I’m impressed you spent ten minutes following it around.
Incidentally, when I worked there one summer I arrived in the last week of April. We had a couple of days of snow after I arrived, and were doing some site-setup in it. There was still snow on the ground at some of our shaded sites well into May.
I think Seabrooke earns many points for this brilliant example of deductive reasoning – not only guessing the correct mountain range, but also the specific location and time of day. Yes, I was facing west in the afternoon, looking at the east slope of Mt. Rose on the north side of Lake Tahoe. I was at about 7,000′ elevation when I took the landscape photo and close to 7,500′ when I photographed the ants.
Cracking a smile every time I think about these fellas popping out and de-feathering a jay.
Could be way off the mark, but at a guess I’d go with Formica sp. Maybe F. hewitti (confess I had a look at antweb for a species guess – cut me slack, I’m from another continent!)?
As for what he’s carrying… not sure, but them thar coxa look meaty!
Formica seems like a good guess, but I’m not even gonna try until Alex or James take a gander.
However, for an Aussie to even hazard a guess is worth 5 points! 🙂
Ah,yes, one of the great quandaries of all time. Who am I,What am I doing and Why do I do this? I ask myself those questions each and everyday, but never quite successfully answer those questions.
It’s obvious it’s a huge ant in a boulder field carrying an equally huge insect leg. I cannot answer those questions because anything that big would have me running in fear and would leave me horribly messed up if I stayed to watch. But Ted, I give much credit to you for having the chutzpah for sticking around and watching.
Me, I’m still shaking in fear.
Chutzpah, stubborness, OCD – it has many names.
Well, I knew the location–but only because I was told ahead of time where Ted and family were going, so that doesn’t count. Aside from that, though, I’m the last person who’d know a doggone thing about the ant or its behavior. Thankfully, it was delicious fun to read Adrian’s devilishly brilliant piece of misdirection (what a visual that created!) and the subsequent comments.
But heck, are we saying we still don’t know what was happening? I mean, other than the ant scampering around because it was scared the voyeur with the camera would follow it home? Where’s an insect expert when you need one…
Alex was here…now where did he go???
I think all of the ant guys are boycotting us because Adrian called them “pismireologists”!
My apologies to all those I may have offended. It was the dark chocolate espresso beans talking…
Yes, we still don’t know what the heck is going on. Nevertheless, I had no idea that a quiz would be this much fun if neither the quiz-giver or quiz-takers knew the answer.
I am going to say F. subsericea. It is a Formica in the fusca group.
Another vote for Formica – and both suggestions are in the fusca group.
Maybe we’ll get out of this pisemire quagmire after all!
(sorry – I couldn’t resist!)
A card-carrying pismireologist and proud of it, I am!
Formica subsericea is closer than hewitti, but still not quite right, since it only lives east of about 95 deg W longitude.
I will add here that I believe the term pismire orignally meant the mound building forest ants of the Formica rufa group, which produce a visible stream of formic acid when disturbed, this especially easily seen when backlit.
Okay non-pismireologists, carry on with your guessing about the ant, and I’ll get back to you later about that.
Meanwhile, a guess of my own — The bit the ant is carrying is remains of a horntail – Siricidae.
Notes from a true pismire admire(r)!
A horntail, huh? Could be – I scanned through Guide to Siricidae of North America (Schiff et al. 2006), and females of a few Tremex species look like good possibilities. The only thing that bothers me is the distinctly bent base of tarsomere 1 (best seen in the first photo) – I didn’t see that in any of the horntails.
Oh, well if I knew it was in Nevada I would have never chosen one of my eastern species. (I didn’t read the comments, just scanned them for guesses)
So, my next best guess would be F. sibylla.
The forelegs look to me like another ant. Perhaps Camponotus vicinus.
That looks pretty good – this photo at antweb.org shows the same bent tarsomere 1.
Here’s an article that might help:
Mountain Ants of Nevada.
The ant info is one thing, but the information on Nevada Mountains and ecological zones is hecka cool – thanks for finding this!
As for the ant, if we trust that this is in the fusca group (it seems that the pisemireologists are giving us non-mires a fighting chance), there are four species of Formica with records from higher elevations on Mt. Rose – true fusca, neorufibarbis, sibylla, and subsericea. Beyond that?
Inclusion of subsericea in this list is due to the taxonomic conservatism of the late George Wheeler. Like I say — very close. B.T.W., subsericea and this species overlap in ND, MN, and adjacent Canada, and there remain distiguishable.
Right, I forgot about your prior comment.
which species is that?
Are we all done guessing on the ant?
Also, is that a pecitinate tibial spur I see on the prey item’s leg?
Oh, that was a clue!
Well, Wheeler & Wheeler (1986) included glacialis and podzolica as synonyms of subsericea in The Ants of Nevada – glacialis is a northeastern form and podzolica is widespread boreal and western (according to Kye Hedlund’s Genus Formica (Formicinae) page), so I’m going with podzolica.
(p.s. if I’m right about this, then James gets my points).
p.s. you can probably see it better than I, but the presence of a strigile would pretty much clinch it as some kind of ant for the prey, right?
So, the tricky bit. Is this ant Formica ______, or is it the undescribed Formica sp. cf. _______? We need to see the underside of the head to look for standing setae.
throws hands up in the air!
Us nonmires will have to let you and James duke that one out 🙂
With the available resources, we’ll just leave it at Alex’s question. However, the first blank should be filled in with argentea, which no one has so far mentioned aloud, I mean in print – er, HTML (Whatever!) – but a species also in the subsericea complex and which occurs out that way.
Ah! I missed that one as a possility in Mountain Ants of Nevada – I got a little ahead of myself when I found the four species listed from Mt. Rose, not even noticing this one listed from “Washoe Co.” and “Lake Tahoe”. Had I done so, I would have surely noted “the silvery sheen of the abdominal pubescence and reddish brown color of the appendages” (Trager 2009) 🙂
I presume the second “________” would thus also be argentea?
What about the prey – do we have a consensus on it’s identity, at least as an ant if not the more specific suggestion of Alex?
This is gonna be a tough one to figure out points for!
I’m pretty sure the prey is an ant (from the curved fore-tarsus, among other things), and the only ants that size around Tahoe are Camponotus modoc and Camponotus vicinus, the latter being a somewhat better match, color-wise.
As to the main ant, it looks kinda like Formica sibylla to me, but it’ll be hard to tell that from argentea without a specimen in hand.
Anyway, this has been a fun one. Is this a new record for comments for one of your posts, Ted?
It didn’t just set a new record number of comments, it smashed it. I had no idea how much fun this one would be.
May I add my compliments to Adrian for a well-crafted story? Knowing next-to-nothing about ants, I found it stunning and quite matter of fact in the delivery. Credulity was, however (and fortunately), strained.
Two things troubled me especially: as I struggled to accept the premise of a hoard of ants defeathering a bird, the fact that you considered the bird “unharmed” gave me pause.
The second, and more important flaw perhaps, is that (in my experience) feather mites desert chicken carcasses with notable alacrity and in enormous numbers. How could ants raise them on dead and dismembered feathers?
I’m sure if those two little problems could be fixed, this would make a most reasonable explanation, right? [grin]
It was really a most delightful fable, owing much of its humor to the deadpan delivery.
I couldn’t stop guffawing once I got to the defeathered bird!
As to the flaws, you needn’t stop at two: it is all a farce. Speaking of which, I’m surprised no one has taken on the mock scientific names yet…
“Pinnaephilopsis garrulus” – would that be the “noisy feather-loving” mite?
As for the ant, I believe the subspecies (with corrected generic spelling) is Lazyass acarileccari nevadensis”
That’s Lazyass ‘mitelicker’, and I believe (harumph) that I have priority with subspecies montanus
Okay all, here is the “official” points tally:
– Ant ID. This seemed like a guided effort with James pulling the strings; however, Joey and Pete did the best outside of his guidance. The three share this slug of points.
– Prey ID. The bent prey fortarsus makes Alex’s suggested ID seem most likely, so he get those points.
– Location. Seabrooke nailed this in stunningly perceptive manner. I don’t think anybody will argue with her winning that competition.
There were also some other, unforseen competitions:
– Adrian… our boy, Adrian… gets the grand prize for telling the tallest tale ever told in one of these quizes. Even still, it was still somehow morbidly conceivable. This is worth considerable pointage.
– The Geek initially fell for Adrian’s tale but redeemed herself by coming up with some good references and an attempted explanation for the puzzling behavior. She gets points, and I won’t even deduct any to give to Adrian.
What to do with all these points? Alex started making these points mean something, so I suppose I should do so as well. I know it’s just one quiz, but it turned into something far different than I expected and was hecka fun. Plus I don’t do them as often as Alex. How about anybody mentioned above gets a free 8×10 of their choice? If you don’t like my photography, then I suppose you read this blog just for its witty prose? (Snicker!) How about a chance to guest post on this blog, or have me guest post on yours – your choice. If none of this is to your liking either, just keep your points and store ’em – or maybe suggest something else. I’m open.
p.s. I still chuckle every time I think of the word ‘pisemire’, so I guess I’m just happy to get in touch with my prepubescent me.
Good for one to be in touch with one’s inner child, Ted. And especially if there’s a (non-destructive) ant connection.
But, I want to say that I’m not sure the bent tarsus means much, probably just a drying artifact. I agree with Alex’s take on the overall Gestalt of the leg. (Now there’s a German word we can all pronounce!)
Alex – James wants some of your prey points, okay? 🙂
Gestalt I can say, but I’m still practicing entwicklungsgeschichte!
I’ll gladly cede those points to Alex. Seems I’ve already got an “in” here.
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