Revision of the Formicidae of North America

Formica meganigra guarding a nest entrance.

I recently came across this ant in the southeastern Missouri Ozarks sitting in a hole in the trunk of a standing dead black oak (Quercus velutinus) tree, apparently guarding the entrance to its nest. This big black ant is frequently associated with dead wood; however, this is the first time I’ve noticed one guarding the entrance to its nest. Other workers coming back to the nest were greeted by this individual by a quick rubbing of antennae and then allowed to pass. The close approach of my camera apparently was not very welcome by the ant, who responded by showing off his *her* impressive choppers.

In trying to determine the species name for this ant, it became clear to me that myrmecologists have made things far more complicated than they really need to be. When I was a kid, ant identification was easy – there were black ants and red ants, and within those two main guilds some were big, some were not so big, and some were really small.  Peter Yeeles alluded to this traditional classification in a recent comment at Fall to Climb, which the Geek herself later modified to recognize ants that were neither black nor red.  In that classification, this is clearly a big black ant; however, the myrmecologists have unnecessarily split this species up into multiple genera and species based on inconsequential characters such as punctures on the head, clypeal notches, hairy scapes, etc.  I propose to bring a measure of sanity back to ant identification in North America with a revised key to the family (below).  It is based on the traditional classification but also recognizes the introduction in recent years of an alien species that stings and has colonized a large part of the southern United States (we didn’t have those when I was a kid).  In offering this simplified classification, it is my hope that school children across the country – naturally curious about ants and other insects – will no longer have their budding interest squashed by the ponderous, complex ant identification system that has become so fashionable in recent years.

Photo Details: Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5X macro lens on Canon 50D, ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/14, MT-24EX flash 1/8 power w/ Sto-Fen diffusers.

Revised Key to Formicidae of North America

.
1 Color black . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
1′ Color not black . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
2 (1) Enormous. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Formica meganigra (big black ant)
2′ Not enormous. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
3 (2′) Regular size . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Formica nigra (black ant)
3′ Tiny. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Formica micronigra (little black ant)
4 (1′) Color red. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
4′ Color yellow . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
5 (4) Can sting. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Solenopsis invicta (fire ant)
5′ Can’t sting. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Formica rubra (red ant)
6 (4′) Regular size. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Formica flava (yellow ant)
6′ Tiny . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Formica microflava (little yellow ant)

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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About Ted C. MacRae

Ted C. MacRae is a research entomologist by vocation and beetle taxonomist by avocation. Areas of expertise in the latter include worldwide jewel beetles (Buprestidae) and North American longhorned beetles (Cerambycidae). More recent work has focused on North American tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) and their distribution, ecology, and conservation.
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64 Responses to Revision of the Formicidae of North America

  1. TGIQ says:

    Genius! Those silly myrmecologists were clearly overcomplicating things unnecessarily.

  2. Kurt says:

    I like the idea :)

  3. James C. Trager says:

    OMG – I’m sure Alex will join me in the sincerest hope this doesn’t “go viral”!!!

  4. MWYork says:

    I like it!

    I think I can follow that key. I think…

  5. I just started working with ant keys and was looking for something easy to follow. I thought your proposed key would be the answer, but my most common ant is half red and half black. The confusion never ends.

    • Steve – your ant clearly represents a hybrid population with one red and one black species as the parents. Depending on its size, you should be able to assign a hybrid ID :)

  6. Kirk says:

    But wouldn’t it be job security? I mean by making it complicated, it could be that myrmecologists are just looking out for their jobs. Right?

    • I think there are actually more sinister motives – I’ve heard the term “world domination” a few times too many in conversations involving people who like ants.

  7. Hilarious. :lol:

    I could have used this key for your Pismire Puzzle – it has far more authority!

    Currently….waiting for Alex or jtrager to produce a key to the three species of Cicindela…

  8. Carol says:

    Her impressive choppers! The ant is showing off *her* impressive choppers!
    I’ll wager she’s fine with being called “a big black ant.” But call her a drone and she’s really going to come after you!

    • Oh dear! Yes, “her” is correct.

      I’m beginning to suspect that whatever standing I’ve achieved as a taxonomist to this point is evaporating rapidly as a result of this post!

  9. James C. Trager says:

    Though you present a very elegant system here, Ted, I deplore the hybridization of the species epithets, using the Greek combining forms mega- and micro- with other roots clearly derived from Latin. Gotta problem with grandi- and parvi-?

    And what of type designation and other little technicalities imposed even on such tidy taxonomic revisions by the ICZN overlords?

    • Talk about making things too complicated, don’t even get me started on The Code! (Actually, I’m a Code purist – it’s all the exceptions to the Code that have been granted that I deplore.)

      How about grandimela or parvicocina?

  10. peteryeeles says:

    Very nice, Ted!

    Can’t wait to see a revised beetle key. Any takers? Alex? James?

  11. Gordon Snelling says:

    I love it, would have made my army ant work so much easier.

  12. Marc "Teleutotje" Van der Stappen says:

    Is it possible to get a key for the ants of the world? Or one only for Europe?

    How to fit Oecophylla smaragdina or Teleutomyrmex schneideri in a key like that?

    Can someone tell K. G. Ross that S. saevissima isn’t a complex of cryptic ant species but only a little deviant population of Formica microflava (little yellow ant)! :) :) :)

  13. I think it still needs pictures…

  14. jason says:

    Brilliant! This is much easier to follow. Now I can identify all the ants in the area, and those pesky red-and-black things must not be ants at all but ant mimics instead. Sneaky critters…

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  16. Vasha says:

    You forgot one important distinction: big black ants inside the house are assumed to be carpenter ants, causing alarm and despondency, whereas big black ants outside are merely ”Formica meganigra”.

  17. Andrea J. says:

    Brilliant! I’ll be sure to post this in my lab; it’ll definitely save us long hours of sample sorting. (Although we’re working with Australian fauna, so I assume that the bulldog ants we occasionally find are something like Formica ginormica?)

  18. Dark Herring says:

    To me this is still too traditional and i proposed a even more drastic change to insect et al taxonomy in ant farm forum:

    A new key for all the land invertebrates of the world:

    1. Insect (or similar) is trying to sting you, bite you, buzzing loudly, or otherwise repugnant and evil looking.
    Annoying Bug – Buggy gotohellii
    - Insect (or similar) is too far away to scare you or is otherwise suprisingly non-threatening.
    Just Some bug – Buggy insignifica

  19. Brian Taylor says:

    I think Linnaeus may have got there first with nice simple descriptions – see Dorylus helvolus for instance.

    I prefer tetranomials as loved by Auguste Forel. Those really set an anti-MacRae standard

    • So one can say that I’m honoring Linnaeus’ Legacy, right? :)

      Actually, I’m fine with trinomials and even interbreeding subspecies (my favorite such animal being unique to right here in Missouri: Cicindela (s. str.) scutellaris lecontei x scutellaris unicolor intergrade!). It’s just that I prefer more straightforward taxonomy in groups that I don’t know so well. :D

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  22. myrmecos says:

    Ted-

    As I’m counting comments here, it strikes me that your most active posts are all about ants. Have you considered the relative advantages of myrmecology over boring beetles?

  23. James C. Trager says:

    Ted, you’ve really started something!

    You’re even getting peripheral commentary over at the myrmecology message board: http://antfarm.yuku.com/topic/9744

    • Well, counting those comments puts the total for this post on track to approach 60. Pismire Puzzle got 66 comments. I don’t think I’ve had another post that even made it to 40, so I may have to begrudgingly acknowledge Alex’s point that people want to hear about ants and not “boring” beetles.

  24. Mel says:

    This is brilliant, but what about medium red stinging ants that aren’t fire ants? Perhaps something like Formica spicula for medium-red-stinging ants?

  25. Roberta says:

    Ted,
    You’ve really done it here. I don’t know how many times I’ve had a homeowner ask me, “What are those black ants I see?” From now on I will know. Thanks from the bottom of my heart. LOL!

  26. it wasn’t until i got to Formica micronigra that i realized what was happening . . .

  27. Joy K. says:

    The ease and logic of your system are breathtaking. Probably, many more people will be seduced into studying myrmecology once this hits the mainstream.

    • Hi Joy, and thanks! But my real aim was to show people that myrmecology is all figured out, and that they should become coleopterists where all the interesting problems still remain. :)

  28. 6legs2many says:

    Just stumbled across this! Brilliant; it made my day. :)
    Among my labmates we have an additional homemade classification for a certain hard to ID group:
    family Fractidae – the broken bugs.

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