Ants in 3D: project begins to image every known species

Australian jumping ant (c) Antweb The project has revealed the Australian jumping ant in fine detail for the first time

Related Stories

Scientists are embarking on a mission to capture a 3D image of every ant species known to science.

The US team is visiting museums around the world to photograph all of the ant specimens in their collections.

They are using a technique that, for the first time, allows microscopic anatomical detail of the insects' bodies to be photographed.

The aim is to make an online catalogue called Antweb, providing a unique tool for scientists who study the insects.

Watch Dr Brian Fisher explain 3D ant photography

It will also allow anyone with access to the internet a detailed glimpse of the diverse world of ants.

Brian Fisher from the California Academy of Sciences is leading the study. He and his colleagues have started their "world ant tour" at the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London.

The team has already used the imaging technique on ant collections in the US, capturing snapshots of 8,000 ant species so far.

But there are approximately 15,000 species that have been "formally described" in science, and about 30,000 species in total.

Each named and described species has a specimen - an ant that provides the reference for what this species looks like - housed in a museum collection.

Dr Fisher and his team plan to capture a snapshot of every single one of these specimens.

"Our goal is to image 10,000 a year," he told BBC Nature. And for the the database to be complete, the team is taking several images of each species, including examples of all the different ant castes - queens, soldiers, minor workers - and the different sexes.

The tree-dwelling South-East Asian ant Echinopla melanarctos (Image: AntWeb)

To achieve this, they need to find the museums with the most complete ant collections, and the NHM is the first one outside of the US that the team has targeted.

Dr Fisher says it has "one of the best ant collections in the world", with more than 6,000 species pinned into display cases in the museum's carefully curated store rooms.

The team will systematically work its way through every one of these boxes of long-dead and preserved ants, and use a special technique that takes dozens of highly magnified pictures all on a different plane of focus.

Combining all of these images into one final picture reveals each insect in unprecedented detail.

"You can zoom in and see fine hairs, the eyes, all of this detail," Dr Fisher explains. "And all of this, under a microscope, is not in focus.

"So this is actually the first time, as a scientist, I get to see this ant in 3D. It's very useful for scientists."

The researcher and his team hope to bring the ant world out of museum cupboards, not just for researchers studying the insects, but also to reveal the diversity of ants to the public.

"Many people don't know the amazing creatures that live in their back yards," he told BBC Nature.

"This project will mean that anybody, anywhere at any time will have access to these specimens that we hide in museums."

Australian jumping ant (c) Antweb The researchers photograph pinned specimens from several angles

More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

More from nature

  • Cardinal fish and ostracodFish filmed spitting 'fireworks'

    Film crew captures ostracods' spectacular defensive lightshow that makes predatory fish spit them out.

  • Arapaima'Locally extinct'

    A giant fish which used to dominate the Amazon river is now absent in many areas

  • DragonflyRapid reactions

    Dragonfly's super quick reactions recorded in slow motion by BBC film-makers

  • Wingless adult male of the midge Belgica antarcticaExtreme survivor

    Antarctic midge's small genome may be an adaptation to its extreme environment

  • Myotis midastactus specimen (previously identified as Myotis simus)Golden discovery

    A bat from Bolivia is described as a new species by scientists

  • Dinosaurs 'shrank' to become birds

    Huge meat-eating, land-living dinosaurs evolved into birds by constantly shrinking for over 50 million years, new research shows.

  • Would we starve without bees?

    Honey bees are under threat, and as pollination significantly contributes to the food we eat, what would we do without them?

  • Eggshells may act like 'sunblock'

    Birds' eggs show adaptations in pigment concentration and thickness to allow the right amount of sun for embryos, scientists say.

  • Female shrimps are more aggressive

    Female snapping shrimps are more aggressive than males when defending their territories despite their smaller claw size, a study shows.

BBC iWonder

  • Honey bee close-upInsect intelligence

    Are honey bees as smart as your sat nav?

  • Tyrannosaurus rex skull (c) Mark Williamson / Science Photo LibraryDinosaur dynasty

    One group of dinosaurs survived and their descendants can be seen all around us today

  • Brown rat cluse upRise of the rodent

    Reports of giant, 'super rats' are filling the headlines. But why are we being overrun by rats?

  • Cuckoo portraitHoliday hotspot

    What makes the UK such an attractive destination for visiting wildlife?

There have been 75 solar eclipses and 167 major volcanic eruptions in my lifetime

Nicole Malliotakis on Twitter comments on the events that have happened since she was born by using our personalised Your Life on Earth interactive infographic.

Things To Do


More Nature Activities >

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.