Pismire Puzzle

I returned home from a much-needed vacation late last night, and even though it was a family trip I have much to share from the past 10 days. However, I must remain coy about where I was for the time being so that I may present this little quiz:

Who am I?

I had planned to post this yesterday, but the best title I could come up with – “Monday Myrmecine Mystery” – was just too similar to a Monday tradition on another blog that we’ve all grown to love.  (Also, I just couldn’t get to it.)  No longer constrained by an M-themed title, I came up with this alternative¹ that I hope will make the 12-year old boy in each of us giggle aloud.

¹ Pismire (from pissemire) is an archaic name of Scandinavian origin for ant. Derived from pisse urine (referring to the smell of formic acid) + mire ant.

What am I doing?

I expect members of the Formicine Guild will jump all over this, so I should probably make this quiz about more than just the name of the ant (which I don’t know, so does that make this an illegal quiz?).  Maybe I should offer double points to non-myrmecologists for a proper ID (but then, I would need the consensus of the myrmecologists – perhaps a conflict of interest?).

Why do I do this?

I could also offer points for correctly guessing what the ant is carrying – which again I wasn’t able to figure out, so I guess points will have to be awarded for the most plausible explanation.  What I do know is the ant carried this carcass while meandering aimlessly over the same patch of ground – occasionally stopping very briefly to dig its jaws into it before resuming its wanderings.  I followed the ant for about 10 minutes, and it never left an area of about 1 square foot – no nest nearby that I could see, no direction to its travels, no apparent purpose to its labors.

This is where I live.

I most definitely know where I was, so firm points are on offer for correctly guessing the answer to that question – either on the basis of the ant ID or the above photograph of its habitat.  Yes, that is snow on the ground – lots of it!

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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69 Responses to Pismire Puzzle

  1. From the description of the ant’s behavior, I believe it is a member of rare ‘Luring’ ant family, the Allettarae. They are known to carry insect parts in this rather flaunting (not “meandering”, as Ted incorrectly describes it ) manner as a means of attracting insectivorous birds such as the grey jay. Once the unfortunate bird descends to investigate, the ant’s compatriots leap from their hiding places in the rocks and latch on to the hapless bird, which is soon restrained and de-feathered. The plucked bird, otherwise unharmed (but no doubt embarrassed) is allowed to hop away because the ants are only interested in the feathers. The downy feathers are used to line the subterranean nest chamber, an understandable method of insulation in this cold montane environment. The firm quilled feathers are dismembered and interred in deeper chambers, where they are collected to act as a food source for herds of feather mites. (I believe these are Pinnaephilopsis garrulus, but I am sure Dave will correct me if I am wrong)

    Contrary to popular belief, the ants do not feed on the actual mites, but rather on what they excrete, much the same as many the many Formacines which feed on aphid honeydew. This type of ant/mite mutualism is unique and known only this one species of ant.

    By now the many myremecologists which read this blog will be jumping up and down and waving their arms to get my attention. They have already determined that, yes, indeed, this a specimen of Lasius acarileccari. And of course, from the habitat we can determine that it is of the sub-species, ‘montanus’.

    As for the location, it has got to be the Pyramid Lake Geological Area in the Sierra Nevada.

    So….is this worth 30 points? I bet the slug-a-bed pismireologists will be really upset that I beat them to the punch on this quiz!

    Now I must return to bed to ponder how I am going to spend my winnings…

  2. myrmecos says:

    Perhaps the myrmecologists should face the challenge of identifying the disembodied legs instead of the live ant.

  3. randomtruth says:

    Darn – Adrian beat me to it – NOT! I’ve seen ants take a dead bird apart, but plucking live birds? Awesome.

    As for the location, based on trees, I too believe it is the Sierra Nevada. And since there’s snow on the ground, it must be above about 3,500 feet.

    -Ken

  4. TGIQ says:

    A thought on the seemingly random behaviour: in an article by E.O. Wilson (Scientific American, 1963), he says that worker ants, if they lose the pheromone trail they were following, will travel in small circles until the trail is either found, or another worker intercepts the “lost” ant by antennae touching and guides it back to the trail.

    • Now that seems reasonable…

    • I thought about that – it’s actually why I watched for so long (well, actually because I had to take about 25 shots to get these three that were even halfway in frame and focused, but that’s another story). It just seemed odd that it kept covering the same ground, crawling over the same rocks even – it didn’t seem to expand its range. There was another black ant in the same general area doing the same thing. I was hoping they would meet to see what they did, but they never got close enough to each other.

      I might as well admit it – ants are really hard to take pictures of!

      • Joey says:

        Formica a pretty skittish for ants. They see me coming from about 8ft away and either freeze or run to hide. Try to get pictures of an ant in the Myrmicinae subfamily. They tend to have interesting textures and are easier to get to hold still.

  5. Seabrooke says:

    I’d know that habitat anywhere. And recalling last year about this time a series of posts wherein you mentioned you wanted to retire to last year’s vacation destination, I’d guess this was Lake Tahoe. Because of the angle of the slopes and the fact that you’re looking at mountain, not lake, and the angle of the shadows of the trees, this is either at the north end, looking west in the afternoon, or at the southern end of the west side, looking south in the morning. Or it could be you weren’t in the lake basin proper, in which case I don’t know where it is.🙂

    As for the ant… beats the heck outta me. Though I’m impressed you spent ten minutes following it around.

    • Seabrooke says:

      Incidentally, when I worked there one summer I arrived in the last week of April. We had a couple of days of snow after I arrived, and were doing some site-setup in it. There was still snow on the ground at some of our shaded sites well into May.

    • I think Seabrooke earns many points for this brilliant example of deductive reasoning – not only guessing the correct mountain range, but also the specific location and time of day. Yes, I was facing west in the afternoon, looking at the east slope of Mt. Rose on the north side of Lake Tahoe. I was at about 7,000′ elevation when I took the landscape photo and close to 7,500′ when I photographed the ants.

  6. Pete Yeeles says:

    Cracking a smile every time I think about these fellas popping out and de-feathering a jay.

    Could be way off the mark, but at a guess I’d go with Formica sp. Maybe F. hewitti (confess I had a look at antweb for a species guess – cut me slack, I’m from another continent!)?

    As for what he’s carrying… not sure, but them thar coxa look meaty!

  7. Kirk says:

    Ah,yes, one of the great quandaries of all time. Who am I,What am I doing and Why do I do this? I ask myself those questions each and everyday, but never quite successfully answer those questions.
    It’s obvious it’s a huge ant in a boulder field carrying an equally huge insect leg. I cannot answer those questions because anything that big would have me running in fear and would leave me horribly messed up if I stayed to watch. But Ted, I give much credit to you for having the chutzpah for sticking around and watching.
    Me, I’m still shaking in fear.

  8. jason says:

    Well, I knew the location–but only because I was told ahead of time where Ted and family were going, so that doesn’t count. Aside from that, though, I’m the last person who’d know a doggone thing about the ant or its behavior. Thankfully, it was delicious fun to read Adrian’s devilishly brilliant piece of misdirection (what a visual that created!) and the subsequent comments.

    But heck, are we saying we still don’t know what was happening? I mean, other than the ant scampering around because it was scared the voyeur with the camera would follow it home? Where’s an insect expert when you need one…

  9. Joey says:

    I am going to say F. subsericea. It is a Formica in the fusca group.

  10. A card-carrying pismireologist and proud of it, I am!

    Formica subsericea is closer than hewitti, but still not quite right, since it only lives east of about 95 deg W longitude.

    I will add here that I believe the term pismire orignally meant the mound building forest ants of the Formica rufa group, which produce a visible stream of formic acid when disturbed, this especially easily seen when backlit.

    Okay non-pismireologists, carry on with your guessing about the ant, and I’ll get back to you later about that.

    Meanwhile, a guess of my own — The bit the ant is carrying is remains of a horntail – Siricidae.

  11. TGIQ says:

    Here’s an article that might help:
    Mountain Ants of Nevada.

    • The ant info is one thing, but the information on Nevada Mountains and ecological zones is hecka cool – thanks for finding this!

      As for the ant, if we trust that this is in the fusca group (it seems that the pisemireologists are giving us non-mires a fighting chance), there are four species of Formica with records from higher elevations on Mt. Rose – true fusca, neorufibarbis, sibylla, and subsericea. Beyond that? shrug emoticon

  12. jtrager says:

    Inclusion of subsericea in this list is due to the taxonomic conservatism of the late George Wheeler. Like I say — very close. B.T.W., subsericea and this species overlap in ND, MN, and adjacent Canada, and there remain distiguishable.

  13. myrmecos says:

    So, the tricky bit. Is this ant Formica ______, or is it the undescribed Formica sp. cf. _______? We need to see the underside of the head to look for standing setae.

    • throws hands up in the air!

      Us nonmires will have to let you and James duke that one out🙂

      • With the available resources, we’ll just leave it at Alex’s question. However, the first blank should be filled in with argentea, which no one has so far mentioned aloud, I mean in print – er, HTML (Whatever!) – but a species also in the subsericea complex and which occurs out that way.

        • Ah! I missed that one as a possility in Mountain Ants of Nevada – I got a little ahead of myself when I found the four species listed from Mt. Rose, not even noticing this one listed from “Washoe Co.” and “Lake Tahoe”. Had I done so, I would have surely noted “the silvery sheen of the abdominal pubescence and reddish brown color of the appendages” (Trager 2009)🙂

          I presume the second “________” would thus also be argentea?

          What about the prey – do we have a consensus on it’s identity, at least as an ant if not the more specific suggestion of Alex?

          This is gonna be a tough one to figure out points for!

          • myrmecos says:

            I’m pretty sure the prey is an ant (from the curved fore-tarsus, among other things), and the only ants that size around Tahoe are Camponotus modoc and Camponotus vicinus, the latter being a somewhat better match, color-wise.

            As to the main ant, it looks kinda like Formica sibylla to me, but it’ll be hard to tell that from argentea without a specimen in hand.

            Anyway, this has been a fun one. Is this a new record for comments for one of your posts, Ted?

  14. Sally says:

    May I add my compliments to Adrian for a well-crafted story? Knowing next-to-nothing about ants, I found it stunning and quite matter of fact in the delivery. Credulity was, however (and fortunately), strained.

    Two things troubled me especially: as I struggled to accept the premise of a hoard of ants defeathering a bird, the fact that you considered the bird “unharmed” gave me pause.

    The second, and more important flaw perhaps, is that (in my experience) feather mites desert chicken carcasses with notable alacrity and in enormous numbers. How could ants raise them on dead and dismembered feathers?

    I’m sure if those two little problems could be fixed, this would make a most reasonable explanation, right? [grin]

  15. Okay all, here is the “official” points tally:

    – Ant ID. This seemed like a guided effort with James pulling the strings; however, Joey and Pete did the best outside of his guidance. The three share this slug of points.

    – Prey ID. The bent prey fortarsus makes Alex’s suggested ID seem most likely, so he get those points.

    – Location. Seabrooke nailed this in stunningly perceptive manner. I don’t think anybody will argue with her winning that competition.

    There were also some other, unforseen competitions:

    – Adrian… our boy, Adrian… gets the grand prize for telling the tallest tale ever told in one of these quizes. Even still, it was still somehow morbidly conceivable. This is worth considerable pointage.

    – The Geek initially fell for Adrian’s tale but redeemed herself by coming up with some good references and an attempted explanation for the puzzling behavior. She gets points, and I won’t even deduct any to give to Adrian.

    What to do with all these points? Alex started making these points mean something, so I suppose I should do so as well. I know it’s just one quiz, but it turned into something far different than I expected and was hecka fun. Plus I don’t do them as often as Alex. How about anybody mentioned above gets a free 8×10 of their choice? If you don’t like my photography, then I suppose you read this blog just for its witty prose? (Snicker!) How about a chance to guest post on this blog, or have me guest post on yours – your choice. If none of this is to your liking either, just keep your points and store ’em – or maybe suggest something else. I’m open.

    p.s. I still chuckle every time I think of the word ‘pisemire’, so I guess I’m just happy to get in touch with my prepubescent me.

  16. Good for one to be in touch with one’s inner child, Ted. And especially if there’s a (non-destructive) ant connection.

    But, I want to say that I’m not sure the bent tarsus means much, probably just a drying artifact. I agree with Alex’s take on the overall Gestalt of the leg. (Now there’s a German word we can all pronounce!)

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