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Ants of Alberta – Technical Editor’s Pick CJAI 22

Earlier this summer, a new key and review of the Ants of Alberta was published in the Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification. James Glasier, the lead author, was kind enough to answer a few questions about the work, and share some of the species he thought were particularly interesting.

Couplet 3 from Glasier et al. 2013

1. What inspired you to produce this key?

The key was inspired by the difficulty of finding coherent, up to date, and all-encompassing keys for the ant fauna of Alberta. It started as a side project, to help me better understand the differences among ant species I was finding during my thesis research.  As it developed, we realized that a key formatted for the Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification would greatly benefit anyone who wanted to study ants in the province. So with the help, guidance, and contributions of my co-authors, we developed to identify all known ants from Alberta.

2. Who do you think is most likely to use your key to the Ants of Alberta?

The coauthors and I hope that anyone who is interested in ants uses the key.  We think that in Canada, ants are too often ignored in biological studies and with this key we hope more people will include them in their research.

3. Rather than provide individual accounts for each species, you’ve linked out to the species profiles in AntWeb. Why did you decide to do it this way, and what advantages does AntWeb have over traditional publishing?

We decided to link the key to AntWeb, because AntWeb has fantastic photos of ant specimens and they are always updating their photo catalog.  It is hoped that these photos work in concert with the key we have developed and better aid identification of ant specimens.  Additionally, AntWeb has an online specimen catalog and natural history sections, which is easily accessed and continually updated to provide current information about each ant species.

4. Were there any ants that you were surprised to find in Alberta?

The most surprising was species was the neotropical ant Brachymyrmex obscurior; found in the Olds University Atrium by Dr. Ken Fry.  For better or worse, the colony seems to have died out. Another surprising ant species was found by John Acorn, Dolichoderus taschenbergi. This ant is a rather obvious ant when you are out in the field; workers are black and very shiny, and in the morning will all congregate on their nest to sun themselves.  The effect of hundreds of workers covering a ~30cm2 area is an obvious sparkling mass of black.  Yet, with over 30 years of work by multiple researchers in the Opal Sand Hills, including John, no one recognized that this species was present until our ant project began.

Dolichoderus taschenbergi – Photo by April Nobile, courtesy of AntWeb.org (CC BY 3.0)

Glasier, J.R.N., Acorn, J.H., Nielsen, S., Proctor, H. 2013. Ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) of Alberta: A key to species based primarily on the worker caste. Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification No. 22, 4 July, 2013. Available online at http://www.biology.ualberta.ca/bsc/ejournal/ganp_22/ganp_22.htmlhttp://dx.doi.org/10.3752/cjai.2013.22

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Canadian amber reveals bizarre ants from the Cretaceous – Editor’s Pick for TCE 145(4)

By Dr. Chris Buddle, McGill University & Editor of The Canadian Entomologist

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It’s with great pleasure that I announce my pick for the latest issue of The Canadian Entomologist.  Ryan McKellar and colleagues wrote a paper on a new trap-jawed ant from Canadian late Cretaceous amber (freely available during September).  As they write in the Abstract, the new species “….expands the distribution of the bizarre, exclusively Cretaceous, trap-jawed Haidomyrmecini beyond their previous records…”. They truly are bizarre! Facial structures right out of a sci-fi movie!  When reading the paper, I was also surprised that the fossil record for the Formicidae is sparse during the Cretaceous.

Haidoterminus cippus. Figure 1 from McKellar et al. 2013

I asked the lead author a few questions about this work, and am pleased to share the responses with you. It’s truly exciting research, and I am thrilled that the pages of TCE include systematics from amber. This work stirs the imagination, and takes us all back in time.

What inspired this work?

My interest in the Canadian amber assemblage really began when Brian Chatterton (then my M.Sc. supervisor) showed me some of the slides that he had borrowed from the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in order to write a book on Canadian palaeontology. The sample set contained insects with bizarre adaptations for life at low Reynolds numbers, and obvious ecological associations, spurring an interest that ultimately led to a research in parasitic microhymenoptera. Michael Engel subsequently introduced me to a much wider array of taxa, and we continue to explore the Canadian assemblage together and with the help of colleagues.

What do you hope will be the lasting impact of this paper?

New records, such as this trap-jawed ant, help to flesh out our picture of the amber-producing forest and its inhabitants. I hope that a comprehensive account of this assemblage will eventually provide insights into terrestrial conditions that are unavailable from other fossil types, and that this will shed some light on changes in diversity and conditions leading up to the end-Cretaceous mass extinction.

Where will your next line of research on this topic take you?  

With any luck, we will be able to complete our coverage of Hymenoptera in Canadian amber soon, and make more of a concerted effort to cover other insect orders and some of the ecological associations found within the deposit. Grassy Lake amber still has a lot to offer, but it is only one of western Canada’s many amber deposits. As a larger-scale project, we are currently part of a team examining the numerous fragile ambers associated with coals in the region. The goal of this research is to create an amber-based record of forest types and inhabitants that spans more than 10 million years within the Late Cretaceous and Paleocene.

Can you share any interesting anecdotes from this research?

Surface-collecting amber can be quite difficult, because unpolished Canadian amber typically has a matte orange-brown colour, and is often covered with a carbon film or weathering crust. If there is no fractured surface visible and the specimen is not translucent, it can be quite difficult to distinguish from the surrounding coal or shale. Furthermore, there is such a range of shapes and sizes that some of the smaller amber droplets are easily confused with modern seeds. One of the quickest ways to see if you are dealing with amber is to wet the specimen and look for amber’s characteristic lustre, or tap the specimen on your teeth (amber feels like plastic compared to most suspect rocks). Naturally, I have licked quite a few samples in the course of my collecting, and have lost a lot of my appreciation for rabbits.

A selection of amber from Grassy Lake. Photo courtesy Brian Chatterton

A selection of amber from Grassy Lake. Photo courtesy Brian Chatterton

Thanks to Cambridge Journals Online for making this month’s Editor’s Pick Freely Available for the month of September!

This post is a regular series highlighting great papers from the pages of the Canadian Entomologist. 
McKellar R.C., Glasier J.R.N. & Engel M.S. (2013). A new trap-jawed ant (Hymenoptera: Formicidae: Haidomyrmecini) from Canadian Late Cretaceous amber, The Canadian Entomologist, 145 (04) 454-465. DOI: