lunes, 31 de agosto de 2015

An old association: ants & orchids

The Cretaceous period was a time during which not only ants diversified but also Angiosperms and in particular orchids (Wilson and Hölldobler 2005, Lubisnsky et al 2008). Nowadays, the number of orchid species is estimated in almost 35.000 species meanwhile ant species reached the modest number of 15.916 (Cribb et al 2003, visited in August 2015).The Pantropical genus Vanilla Plumier ex Miller, is a group of orchid with about 107 species (Lubisnsky et al 2008). An interaction exists between Vanilla and ants, as also demonstrated for other orchid species (Gigant et al 2011). Extrafloral nectar is produced in many Vanilla sp and ants were observed collecting this sugary exudate.

So, this year I expanded my research interests from the interaction between ants and honeydew producing insects to the interaction between ants and extrafloral nectarium (EN). As a consequence, I proposed to my colleagues, Priscila Hanisch and Andrés Sánchez Restrepo, to join me in a new project at rain forest of Osununu, Misiones (Figure 1) concerning the association between the orchid vine Vainilla chamissonis Klotzsch and nectivorous ants. 

Figure 1. From left to right Andrés, Priscila and me preparing to climb one of the trees where there is attached a vine of V. chamissonis. At the top of the plant, 5 m above, there some flowers where we have seen same patrolling ants.

Our main goal is to identify which ant species collect nectar from the EN of the V. chamissonis and to investigate if they perform some ecological service i.e defend this orchid against herbivores. In particular, we chose this orchid because it is an endangered species in Argentina. Apparently this situation is a consequence of the combination of two factors. The first one is the particular soil requirements this orchid vine has. This orchid is usually found in well drainage soils like sandy soils or very organic soils. For example in Brazil its distribution comprises the Atlantic coast restingas (Reis et al 2011). In Argentina, up to know it have been identified sparse populations in only two small areas at Misiones, Chaco and Formosa provinces, close to river areas. The second factor of the rarity of V. chamissonis, is the reduction of its natural habitat combined with human exploitation.These are the most common threats for orchids plus climate change (Swarts and Dixon 2009). 

In our first field campaign, we found Camponotus mus (Figure 2) and Pseudomyrmex gracilis collecting nectar on the only two plants that produced flowers. These ant species are very generalist and collect sugar solution from many sources in the area we surveyed (Figure 3). We don´t expect a very close association with this orchid.  

Figure 2.The extrafloral nectaries in the case of V. chamissonis are at the base of the flowers.

Figure 3. From top right to left bottom, in this collage Dyckia distachya Hassler an endangered species of Bromeliaceae according to Zanella et al (2012) provides small drops of extrafloral nectar from an inconspicuous nectarium to a C. mus worker. The mayor worker is patiently waiting that the minor finish leaking the drop.

As the flowers of Vanilla orchids last for only 24h and open just a few hours per day it is going to be hard to obtain enough flowers to follow association with ants. That is why we are going to cultivate them in a nursery to stablish the typical ant-exclusion experiment. Certainly this will take some time for plants to attain the size and strength to flower. In the meantime, we are characterizing the composition of ant community the area of Osununu Natural Reserve (Fig 4). For Priscila, this represents a good opportunity to collect some extra samples of Ponerinae for her PhD thesis as
well for Andres who collected some samples of Attine group.

Figure 4. We sampled ants using pitfalls (Andres at top), winklers (Andres and Priscila hanging them in the center), shifting litter and doing hand collection (Caro at bottom).

Thanks to Temaiken Fundation ( for supporting our work and allowing us to work in a wonderful place (Figure 5).

Figure 5. There are nice views in this area but, as in every rain forest, often rains.That is the time to sort material and to organize everything for a secure transportation.

Cribb PJ, Kell SP, Dixon KW, Barrett RL, 2003. Orchid conservation: a global perspective. In: Dixon KW, Kell SP, Barrett RL, Cribb PJ, editors. Orchid conservation. Kota Kinabalu, Sabah: Natural History Publications; pp. 1–24.
GigantRodolphe, BorySéverine, Grisoni Michel, Besse Pascale, 2011. Biodiversity and Evolution in the Vanilla Genus, The Dynamical Processes of Biodiversity - Case Studies of Evolution and Spatial Distribution, PhD. Oscar Grillo (Ed.), ISBN: 978-953-307-772-7, InTech, Available from: distribution/biodiversity-and-evolution-in-the-vanilla-genus. 
Lubinsky P, Cameron K M, Molina M C, Wong M,Lepers-Andrzejewski S, Gómez-Pompa A, Seung-Chul K, 2008. Neotropical roots of a Polynesian spice: the hybrid origin of Tahitian vanilla, Vanilla tahitensis (Orchidaceae). American Journal of Botany, 95 (8): 1040-1047.
Reis CAM, Brondani GE, de Almeida M, 2011.Biologia floral, reprodutiva e propagação vegetativa de baunilha. ScientiaAgraria Paranaenis10: 69-82.
Swarts N D, Dixon K W, 2009.Terrestrial orchid conservation in the age of extinction.Annals of Botany 104: 543–556.
Wilson E, Hölldobler B, 2005. The rise of the ants: A phylogenetic andecological explanation. PNAS 102 (21): 7411–7414.
Zanella C, Janke A, Paggi G, Goetze M, Reis M, Bered F, 2012. Microsatellites in the endangered species Dyckia distachya (Bromeliaceae) and cross-amplification in other bromeliads. Int J Mol Sci. 13(12): 15859–15866.

Diversity of ground dwelling ants. Part II

On 2009, when I started this blog, I posted in ongoing projects about our research of biodiversity of ground dwelling ants at National Park of Iguazú. 

This research was inspired by an advice E.O Wilson gave to me, in Barcelona, during the XIX International Award of Catalunya 2007. He said “It is all to be done in Misiones”. I kept this in my mind. Now, we have our first checking list of National Park of Iguazú, Misiones a hot spot of biodiversity due to the patient work of Priscila Hanisch, the student in charge of identifying the ant species. She Defended successfully her undergraduate thesis last year. Well done Pri, we are proud of you!! You can find our paper at research gate.

That’s me talking with Wilson during a nice lunch he shared with a group of Spanish myrmecologist at Barcelona.

At our University the tradition is to prepare some special “mixture” of things to throw it to those who finished its degree. Pri looks beautiful with all the sparkles,the paint on her face and some petals of roses.
One month before defending her thesis Priscila won a grant to do her PhD thesis. Now she is working at the Museum of Natural Science of Buenos Aires, under the supervision of Dr Andrew Suarez from the University of Illinois. Her main goal is to record the biodiversity of Ponerinae ant species of Argentina and in particular,characterize it´s diet and venon composition of the species in the rain forest of Misiones.

Even Elfs watch bugs!

For those who enjoyed “The return of the King”of Tolkien’s trilogy “The Lord of the Rings” I recommended to watch in detail the scene in which Arwen return to Rivendel to ask Elrond, her father, to reforge Narsil, Isildur’s sword, then called Andúril. In this scene, between 37’:39” and 37’:55”, Arwen entered in a arbor where his father was writing. It is possible to see a rare gadget that looks like a magnifying glass of Elfs mounted in a platform made of wooden rods. Here is a picture of the movie in which I have drawn a cyan rectangle to show it. 

 A nice view of Rivendel

 The magnifier glass of Elf with Arwen showing her back

Yes, I have seen this movies many times ....

jueves, 21 de agosto de 2014

Following the shadow of Kusnezov

Some people left a long shadow of knowledge which inspires others. This is the case of Nicolai Kusnezov (1868-1963). He was one of most prolific Argentinian myrmecologist. Kusnezov followed previous steps of others great myrmecologists: Angel Gallardo, Carlos Bruch and Jean Brethes. He traveled across Argentina, collecting ants, observing their behavior and wrote in a very pictorial way, in my opinion. Even nowadays, the keys for Argentinian ant species he wrote are material of reference, but they need an urgent update.

One of my hopes is to add another sand grain to the growth of myrmecology in every province of Argentina.  In my opinion, the best way to develop or change something is to get involved in it in some way. So, I decided to share my knowledge and my passion by ants through a postgraduate course about ant ecology, systematic and behavior. This idea, to follow the shadow of Kusnesov as I called it, began to grow in my mind after being involved in the Ant course at Tucson (2009). Fortunately, I didn't need to insist much to convince the fellows of my laboratory to join me in this unpredictable project. Up to know, we have done two successful editions, on 2011 and 2013 at the Department of Ecology, Genetic and Evolution of the Faculty of Natural Science of the University of Buenos Aires

A collage of people, places, ants and fun

Now, we move forward. Where? To the land of wonderful ants, i.e. to Misiones province. Next year, we will give a workshop of three days at the Argentine Congress of Entomology, CAE2015, This workshop will include the same main topics as the previous editions: collecting, pinning and identifying ants, understanding why they are so important for terrestrial ecosystems and discussing the use of ants as bioindicators. This last topic promises to be the hot one of the workshop as it will trigger the most controversial points of view among participants and even among professors.

martes, 15 de octubre de 2013

The global community of myrmecologists

Like ants, myrmecologists (and of course any other worker) use to interact among them. Obviously, I am referring to those with whom you can establish work collaborations or just make and listen suggestions and advices to improve the research you are performing. The help you give and receive saves time and effort and sometimes shapes friendship relations not only work relations. In the meantime, some collaborative works become papers or big projects, others are just mentioned as acknowledgments or forgotten (Yes! there are ungrateful people anywhere).

At you can find a worldwide list of myrmecologist. It´s made me happy had had the great opportunity to talk with a few of them and to work with a couple of them. I hope to interact with some others. 

Here is a good example of collaborative work. We (Priscila and I) collaborate with Chad Tillberg and Andrew Suarez, in a project about the ecological position of the tiger ant, as local people call Dinoponera australis at the National Park of Iguazú, Argentina. Now, Priscila is formely a PhD student under the direction of Andy and I was invited to visit his laboratory.

 I had a great experience visiting Dr Andrew Suarez laboratory at Champaign-Urbana University last year. The ant collection of A. Suarez and Alexander Wild gather specimens for the five continents. So, in two weeks I have made my own “Journey to the ants”, all around the world.  It was amazing having in my hands the dinosaur ant Nothomyrmecia macrops. As I brought my own material I could compare the specimens and learnt the details to identify some ant species. Additionally, I was trained to take photographs as those ones of the ant web.

 These are some of the photos I made at Andy’s lab. It is a queen of the invasive ant specie Linepithema humile still with wings. It is not common to find them with the wings as the queens do not fly, only the males. I found this one checking daily the nests I have in the laboratory, at home.

Not all is about work. Enjoying mundane things, such as sharing a snack at a park in sunny day with friends, connect our lives with those simple events that remind us how less we need sometimes to be happy. I agree this sound like a cliché but this is what I fell.

Friday afternoon, after pinning, identifying and photographing nothing better than a dark beer at the Big Grove Tavern with Alex and Jo-Anne. I found high quality and variety of taste of darks beers at Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. Sunday morning, having breakfast with A Suarez and a friend at Dinner, (this is one of my favorite photos)

Just a final though. I know that Linkelyn, Facebook, Twiter, etc are useful tools to know each other and keep connected. But, I prefer to met people in person, to know how their voices sound, how they look at you meanwhile you are speaking to them, how they express their passions, dislikes, jokes, embarrasments, anger, etc. So, thank you to all those people who keep in touch with me (in alphabetic order: Alex Wild, Andy Suarez, Members of Ecodes group, Luis Calcaterra, Mireia Buitrago Diaz, Phill Ward, Silvia Abril, Xavier Espadaler)

martes, 30 de agosto de 2011

Into the primitive

In the frst chapter of his novel “Call of the wild”, Jack London wrote

“Old longings nomadic leap,

Chafing at custom's chain;

Again from its brumal sleep

Wakens the ferine strain”

Sometimes the rain forest could be an inhospitable site, other times could be seen as one of the most wonderful sites in the world. But never mind how horrible your last experience was in the rain forest, the call of the wild happens again. It is like a crouched animal, waiting the right moment to jump and capture the prey. Again, I wonder why I am here? Why always I chose this type of places? And most important, why my husband decided to follow me? This last questions is pretty easy to anwer, just for love. He is not interested in ants at all, and he doesn’t like being in the rain forest, where everything will bite, sting or puncture you or at least try to colonize your body in some way.

This time we went one week to National Park of El Rey (The King). This park is located at the province of Salta (poner figura del google), comprises 54,000 ha and was created in 1954 (to see more information about the park go to: poner dirección web del parque, only in spanish). My aim in this area was to sample part of the biodiversity of epigeic and hipogeic ants. We worked at three transects of 100m, located 2.5km far away from each one, at different altitudes. Every 10m we applied four different sampling methods: hand collection, baits (tuna, honey and corn flakes), baited probes (I love this method) and winkler.

Walking to the sampling site, the name of the trail is Chorro de los Loros. Once at the beginning of the trail I started taking the gps points. 

Sampling ants from rotten wood. In this case I was sampling a Pachyconyla nest.

An individual of Pachycondyla sp. carrying a pupa.
Unfortunatelly between November and March the rain period occurs in this area and this made thing pretty difficult. Specially in relation with the sampling ants using Winkler’s method. This method is particulary suitable for extracting ants from the litter. However, the litter should not be too much wet or too much dry. Never mind let’s see at the laboratoty what we have sampled. Every day thousands of ticks tried to colonize our body, some were succesfull for a few hours. At the evening, hundreds of gnats sucked our blood (little vampire) even inside the house (they managed to pass through window's nets). Pablo had an anaphylactic reaction because of the bites and he should inyect himself with antihistamines (how brave!!)

 Here is Pablo shigting litter from the sides of the trail.

This is he with his lovely machete and a detail of all the bites of his legs :(


domingo, 19 de septiembre de 2010

Before and after great events

There is no doubt that some events in our lifes can made the difference. These events mark a line, before and after which you can feel a big change. I would like to share two of these events that promoted a change in my life. One is related with ants and the other with bikes, as you can imaging.

Before and after the Ant course

On August 2009 I was accepted in the Ant Course. But, the story had began two years before this date. One of my fellows of the laboratory, Maria del Mar Beaumont, adviced me about the great experience that she had when she participated in Ant Course on 2007. So, I began to save some money and on the first semester of 2009 I did a new course of English, mainly to up date my spoken english. Finally, the day to applicate arrived and I sent my application. I was aware that the competion for being accepted will be strong. So, when I was given a grant for station and tuition fees I really feel in heaven. Another fellow of my laboratory was also accepted in the course, Beatriz Nobua Bermann. That make things easist because we relied each other with every tiny detail before and during the travel.

The first thing that impressed me, was the exceptionall organization and logistic of the course. The only thing about which students should take an interest in was to learn as much as they can. For me was amazing to collect ants in the field or to take a breakfast or a beer with those researchers from which you had been reading their works in Ecology, poner otras or any other journal for years. During these two weeks there was only one though in my mind “this is an unique opportunity you can sleep later on so, continue mounting ants and enjoy this time”.

With Andy Suarez having a break during the social hour

From left to right, Brian Fisher, Cristina Mastracani, me and Bob Jhonson colleting ants at the desert

That day we also dig a nest of honeypot ant and some of them tried those big balls filled with honeydew 

We spent many hours at the laboratory attending to seminars and mounting and classifying collected ants. Here Beatriz help me with the battery of my camara.

These are my fellows in the laboratory Zachary and Tritia. I really have fun with them
Before and after the Turo d’home

The Turo (1713 m asl) is one of the emblematic mountains from Catalonia, Spain. It is the highest point of the Montseny Natural Park an area 40 km from Barcelona. Two times I had tried to get the top and because of the heat, the lack of strengh and resistance or what ever I failled between 4 to 6 km. Climbing this mountain is one of the most common challenge for cyclist and implies climbing for 25 km with a mean slope of 6%. On winter of 2006 I was alone at home because Pablo had decided to visit his parents in Argentina for one month. One Sunday I got up very early in the morning and said to “today is the day to climb the Turo and I will arrive to the top, no matter how much effort I should do”. Finally I arrived to the top in 2 hours 50 minutes. When I was going down, really fast, the mountain “charge me” my daring. One little stone suddenly jump, this use to happens when your front tyre centrifuge the material on wet roads, to my eyeglass and broke one glass Here are some photographs of my litlle challenge. The best was going alone and probing to me that with decision and perseverance you can obtain what you really want.

My happiness at home