Ponera Ants on Cladonia

Ponera Ants on Cladonia (8 x 8 in. watercolour)

10 August 2017 found me in Spednic Lake Protected Natural Area, near McAdam, New Brunswick, following Aaron Fairweather around as he collected ants. Traveling light that year, I had decided that all my paintings for the New Brunswick Museum's BiotaNB survey would be in watercolour - a couple of scenes, and several wildflowers... and this painting of a few of the ants we collected, shown exploring a tuft of the Gray Reindeer Lichen, Cladonia rangiferina that was growing near their nest.

Ponera pennsylvanica live in small colonies of no more than 60 workers, under stones and in rotting wood, foraging out singly for mites, springtails, and small insects. They are very tiny ants, only about 2.5 mm in length, so I was able to use one of the museum's microscopes to begin the painting in the BiotaNB lab set up in the Lion's Hall in downtown McAdam. For lifelike poses I referred to YouTube videos of this species in captive colonies. 

I spent hours watching videos of Ponera colonies, and capturing frames as reference photos. They have short legs which they hold close to their bodies, looking almost worm-like in their movements. What flexible bodies they have, able to bend in half to turn around in one of their tunnels! 

When I set my microscope up at home, to resume the painting, I found that its large objective lens was corroded, and that replacing it would cost as much as a new 'scope. After a couple of years of indecision, I decided to borrow one from my good friend Greg Hutton, and have finally finished the painting, working with specimens I had brought from New Brunswick. I added a fourth ant to improve the composition. Alternately peering through the scope and focusing on my painting, I realized that when it comes to painting detailed subjects, I'm a glutton for punishment!

I asked Aaron for more information about this species, and this is what he wrote: "Ponera is a genus of ants that shares more ancestral characteristics than any other ant group, making it a good reference for what early ants looked and behaved like. Their back facing, curled stinger is indicative of a highly predatory species of ant. The major characteristic we use to identify Ponera is a constriction of the first segment of the gaster. This constriction is likely what turned into the post-petiole in all other myrmicinae, which is a really cool evolutionary trait! Ponera are typically also nomadic, they don't maintain one permanent nest, rather move locations frequently. The Ponera pennsylvanica I found in spednic weren't new records for the province but they were for that area and PNA". 

Ants are just starting to get attention in the maritimes thanks to the work of Aaron Fairweather and several other early-career entomologists. Ants in the martimes are fairly unknown, and Aaron's work is the first ever assessment of ants in New Brunswick. So far he and his colleagues have found 88 species of ants to call New Brunswick their homes, and new species each year - a rich diversity of species that traverses dozens of habitat types, from dulotic (slave-making) ants, to social parasites, to bog specialists and nomads like the Ponera

Here is a portrait that I painted for the New Brunswick Museum, of Aaron in August, 2016, when BiotaNB was in the with a small vial of ants that he had just picked off the stick that he is holding. We were in Nepisiguit Protected Natural Area near  Mount Carleton, in northwestern New Brunswick that year.
"Aaron and the Ants" (oil on canvas, 8 x 8 in.)

My paintings "Ponera Ants on Cladonia" and " Aaron and the Ants" are in the permanent collection of the New Brunswick Museum.

Aleta Karstad


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