Myrmecos’ Alex Wild pays a visit to Italy

Hey, apparently a while ago Alex Wild of Myrmecos visited Parma, an Emilia-Romagna city not too distant from where I live! But what was he doing there? He was in collaboration with local researchers to start a project in which the local population (in this case, elementary school kids) would be directly involved into ant research, which is totally awesome. I was really envious when I read on Wild’s blog of similar projects that took place in America, because this kind of things both help researchers collect data on large territories and manages to sparkle more interest and understanding for science and biodiversity in non-scientists; since here in Italy there’s basically no real support for scientific research, I thought we would never start something like that, which would have been a pity because our nation, thanks to the enormous diversity of geographic and climate conditions, has the richest biodiversity in all Europe. Well, apparently (and fortunately) I was wrong, since this new initiative follows the american model: it consist in leaving open vials containing a bait (usually a piece of a cookie) in various places with different conditions (grass, concrete…), wait for local ants to enter them, then capture the insects. At this point, the citizen can attempt an identification, but more importently can record data on when, where, etc… the specimens where captured, then freeze the ants, pack them with the data and send them to experts, helping them to study the distribution and ecology of these amazingly important organisms. So, overall, that’s great news for italian biodiversity research. One minor note to Alex Wild’s otherwise excellent article: I kind of rolled my eyes reading “…the students went back inside to talk about what they had found and then, I assume, it being Parma, eat pasta and/or pizza for lunch…”. It’s a little bit weird. Yes, pizza and the pasta can be found everywhere in Italy, of course, but come on, you make me feel like this guy.

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Let’s talk camouflage – or not?

by Francesco Lami

Camouflage is a widely adopted trick by organisms, especially animals, to avoid predators or surprise preys. Awesome myrmecologist (what’s with this blog and myrmecologists, anyway?) Alex Wild of Myrmecos fame has posted some days ago an article about what might indeed be one of the most incredibly elaborated camouflage tricks in the already incredibly elaborated world of camouflage. Click the link and look at that goddamn moth, Macrocilix maia: as Alex himself pointed out, it’s a whole mural, depicting two red-eyed flies feeding on bird droppings, complete with light glinting off the wings and the poo. Especially if looked from a few feet of distance, those really look like real flies and real crap, probably realistic enough to trick a bird anyway, and to make the whole thing more convincing, the moth smells bad (what’s with this blog and smelly animals, anyway?). I must admit, however, that I’m a little bit skeptic, and I’m not even the first one, to feel that way. Matthew Cobb wrote a post at Jerry Coyne’s WEIT addressing the most important problem with the theory: ok, flies makes the whole “bird shit” scenario a lot more realistic, but wouldn’t they attract fly-eating predators? While I still think that this, while a good objection, might not be enough to completely destroy a theory supported by the fact that the moth not only does look like bird droppings with flies, but also stinks like bird droppings with flies, I can’t help but think that this might just us seeing things we imagine where there are none, not differently from a Rorscharch test. It’s a story similar to that of the Samurai Crabs, whose face-like carapace has been suggested by some to have been artificially selected by superstitious japanese fishermen who released all the crabs which remotely looked like human faces, while others think it’s just a case of paraeidolia.

Long story short, the question is: do the wings of M. maia look like bird shit thanks tnatural selection, which gave the advantage of not being eaten to the shittiest moths? Or is that just one of the many varieties of moth wings, in which we have seen what we wanted to see (which is… shit, I guess)?