What was the best part of this assignment?
Retired entomologist Lloyd Davis came with me to Tiputini Research Station in Ecuador to help find Thaumatomyrmex, the species I call the "Hannibal Lector ant" because of its basket-toothed mandibles. Lloyd is an expert at finding ants that are either very rare or elusive. Incredibly patient, he will sit for hours and hours, stooped over a white tray filled with soil and dead leaves, using jeweler's magnifiers to look for specks that move: tiny ants. Many ant experts search all their lives without seeing a single one of these ants, or maybe one at most; Lloyd had seen two. Amazingly, during our two weeks together in Ecuador, he found his third. The picture I took of his ant appears in the National Geographic article. It's likely these ants aren't so rare, but they sure are hard to see!
What was the trickiest part of the assignmet?
In Tiputini, Lloyd Davis and I wanted to confirm the hypotheses that the ant Basicerus singularis—which I call the "mud ant" for its habit of covering itself with mud and moving around slowly—feeds on snails. Snail shells had been found in their nests, so was it true? Ecuadorian ant student David Donoso helped us, but we had a problem: We couldn't find small enough snails. Snails as large as the ants simply ran over our mud ants, coating them with slime. What a mess! Eventually, though, we found some small snails and were able to confirm the ant's taste for escargot.
Did you come across anything particularly interesting?
I strive to take pictures of creatures in nature. But sometimes it's just plain impossible. I knew there was a chance of getting a "natural" shot of a gliding ant: So many ants fall out of the treetops every day—either by accident or knocked off by another animal—that scientists call it "ant rain." But having one of those ants fall right past my camera seemed all but impossible. Because of that, I set my camera on a tripod, gathered up some ant subjects, and dropped them past the lens. Even under these ideal circumstances, getting a sharply focused image of an ant in full gliding posture took many hours, with over 6,300 attempts. For nearly three weeks, this was my rainy-day activity at Tiputini Research Station. (The ants were returned unharmed, though possibly groggy.)