How to make a giant aluminum ants’ nest

The internets have been abuzz with this photo today:
ant nest

It’s a photo of an aluminum cast of an ant nest made by Walter Tschinkel, a Florida entomologist–but there haven’t been a lot of additional details.

The nest you are looking at is one of a Florida harvester ant, and appeared with many other photos and casts in a 2004 paper about nest architecture in the Journal of Insect Science.  They are things of great beauty, and tell us a lot about how ants build.

The uppermost portions of a medium-small Pogonomyrmex badius nest
The uppermost portions of a medium-small Pogonomyrmex badius nest

This series of photos, for example, shows how the complexity of the nest structure grows as the colony adds workers.  You can find more amazing photos of different types of ant nest casts here in a 2012 article.

There is even a video of the process of making these casts! And yes, don’t do this at home. Even if Dr. Tschinkel did publish detailed instructions on all the different ways to make an ant nest cast.  I am looking at you, Mr. Treelobster.

I would be remiss if I did not also link to this older video that uses ten tons of cement to discover the extent of a much larger African South American ant nest. (I am told it’s Atta vollenweideri, and it was dug up in South America. Thanks for the correction!)

Tschinkel W.R. (2004). The nest architecture of the Florida harvester ant, Pogonomyrmex badius., Journal of insect science (Online), PMID:

Tschinkel W.R. (2010). Methods for Casting Subterranean Ant Nests, Journal of Insect Science, 10 (88) 1-17. DOI:

Crowd-sourcing Ant Science

Earlier this week, the internets were buzzing with a claim that Kickstarter is funding more projects than the National Endowment for the Arts.  It turns out that may not be strictly true, but it certainly is true that a lot of cool projects are being crowd-sourced that otherwise would never have made it off the ground.

I’ve mentioned some insecty Kickstarter projects before, like Meet The Beetle (a film about an endangered tiger beetle).  Unfortunately, Kickstarter is limited to arts and humanities. But now the concept of crowdsourcing has been harnessed for science! is so new it hardly has a bacterial film growing on its website yet. Its first science crowd-sourcing project involves two awesome things: Insects and Madagascar.

“Unique” doesn’t begin to describe Madagascar. This giant island split from the African Continent over 160 million years ago, and over 90% of it’s mammal and reptile species occur no where else in the world.  Deforestation and erosion are critical threats to the island’s ecosystems, and many native species are endangered.

Brian Fisher, one of the folks behind AntWeb, is leading a project to document the ant species of a high remote preserve.   You might be wondering why you should care about ants in Madagascar.  You may especially be wondering this because you have figured out that at some point later in this post I’m going to hit you up for a donation.  I really like this statement from AntWeb that puts ants in context:

“At this moment, more than one thousand trillion ants are scurrying all over the Earth. If every human climbed aboard one side of a scale, and every ant crawled onto the other side, the scale would just about balance.”

Ants probably move more earth and recycle more dead things yearly than a whole army of human undertakers with bulldozers ever could.  Ants are a critical part of making the world’s living systems function.  The project description:

“Ants are the glue that hold forests together. But Madagascar’s hotspots of biodiversity are vanishing, and along with them unknown species. An estimated 40 percent of the island’s species, in fact, have already perished through human encroachment.

While ants aren’t as popular as furry and feathery animals, the insects turn over forest soil, breakdown debris, disperse crucial nutrients and otherwise support an unimaginable number of species both up, down and across the food chain. The insects are also a growing resource for antimicrobial and antifungal compound discovery, as many ants manufacture such chemicals to ward off disease and even farm food.

I need to reach one of the last standing pristine forests, called the Kasijy, before nearby populations burn them down to raise cattle. Researchers have visited the remote site only a handful of times because it’s a rugged, canyon-filled landscape resting on high blocks of limestone and sedimentary rock.Because Kasijy is so pristine, it also serves as a crucial data point of what Madagascar used to be like before the advent of modern civilization. The region and other forests are great places to understand the ongoing impacts of climate change on highly specialized ecosystems.

My expedition aims to:

  • Inventory Kasijy’s untold new species and document their roles in a pristine natural ecosystem.
  • Understand the biodiversity patterns of Madagascar and resolve our “bioilliteracy” of the Kasijy forest.
  • Set up more robust conservation plans for the island.
  • Raise awareness of Madagascar’s natural wonders and its ongoing plight.”

There are 39 days left to fund this project–I hope you can spare a dollar or two to help a researcher out!  Note that a large gift gets you acknowledged in any manuscripts published from this research.