Collecting in Australia’s remote McIlwraith range

The following is an invited post by Alex Wild of Myrmecos Blog:

Myrmecologists Gary Alpert & Phil Ward mucking about with magnetic termites. Cape York Peninsula, Australia, 2004.

Ted MacRae so graciously guest blogged for me last week, so I figured it’s time to turn this around and send one Ted’s way. One of the great joys of Beetles in the Bush is Ted’s photojournalistic coverage of various insect collecting adventures. In that vein, I will recount an Australian expedition with famous ant guys Gary Alpert and Phil Ward from back in 2004. I never blogged the trip because, hey, I didn’t blog back then.

The International Congress of Entomology had just concluded its meeting in sunny Brisbane, and we had time to explore the biological riches of tropical Queensland. So our trio of intrepid ant biologists caught a flight to the remote Cape York Peninsula, a sparsely-inhabited tropical finger that points north from Cairns to Papua New Guinea.

Among our specific destinations was the remote McIlwraith range, a small plateau coated in rain forest lying kilometers off the nearest maintained road. Here’s the satellite image:

Why visit such a difficult spot? Partly for the very inaccessibility. Places that are hard to reach hold high potential for yielding new discoveries. And partly because the forest hosts an unusual blend of typically Australian fauna and southern incursions of the New Guinean fauna. Many species reach their far southern extent in the McIlwraith range.

Grass trees along the track.

The friendly park ranger in nearby Coen took a look at our trusty rented 4×4 truck and announced that while it might make it through the overgrown track to the mountains, it would likely emerge bent into some new shape. This prognosis turned out to be prophetic.

Before we even reached the rain forest, the surrounding woodland yielded many formicid treasures:

An adorable Meranoplus.

Winter leaf drop reveals an arboreal empire of Oecophylla weaver ants.

Rhytidoponera carinata

Setting up camp for the night.

As we pressed on the forest became increasingly dense, and eventually we’d wedged the truck tightly enough through the bush that we lost a side mirror.

Driving onward, Phil at the helm.

A fern in the forest.

As promised, the insect life was spectacular:

Calomyrmex laevissimus

Nasute termites guarding a breach in their tunnels.

An unlikely darkling beetle.

A Leptomyrmex spider ant.

Folks who complain about roaches have obviously never seen one of these...

9 thoughts on “Collecting in Australia’s remote McIlwraith range

  1. Pingback: Over at Beetles in the Bush… « Myrmecos Blog

  2. Wonderful blog Alex! Your photos are magnificent, as always, and I thoroughly enjoyed vicariously visiting Australia with you. I read only two blogs regularly, yours and Ted’s. Each day they are the ones I check out for stories and photos. Great job Alex! Looking forward to you too Ted!

  3. Hey, I think I’ve seen those Alpert and Ward characters somewhere, before, haha. Seeing those familiar human (and ant) faces almost made me feel I was along on the trip — Kind of like an implanted memory!

    And speaking of cute, Meranoplus does have an adorable look at first, but is a bit spiky upon closer observation. Ever the fan of formicines, I vote for Calomyrmex.

  4. Great seeing some familiar insects on BiTB (not that I don’t enjoy the usual servings of US fauna!). I would have to agree with James…. that Calomyrmex is a cutie.

    Any plans to head back at some point, Alex? The ants here are ready and waiting for you, with your newly acquired gear/techniques!

  5. I don’t know where to start – other than to say I loved this post. It really triggered my wanderlust – even though I just got back from 2 weeks of travel.

    Yes, Meranoplus is adorable, but I prefer the more menacing Rhytidoponera.

    I always enjoy seeing photos of colleagues in the field – I’ve got a few from years past that I should scan and post.

    That’s a darkling beetle?! For a moment I was tempted to “correct” your ID of what had to be a meloid.

    How comically strange those Nasute termites are!

    Wonderful travelogue – thanks for filling in so capably during my absence!


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