OIST minisymposium on using advanced imaging techniques to study evolution of ant phenotypes

Last week our lab hosted an OIST Mini Symposium titled “Advances in imaging, quantifying, and understanding the evolution of ant phenotypes” organized by Evan Economo and Francisco Hita Garcia. The aim of the symposium was to gather a small but selected group of leading researchers interested in the evolution of ant phenotypes with a strong focus on the use of x-ray microtomography (micro-CT). Our list of speakers covered experts in the fields of molecular and morphological systematics, anatomy, functional morphology, comparative morphology, adaptive trait evolution, reproductive biology, linear and geometric morphometrics, and paleontology. All invitees gave outstanding talks and presented published or ongoing research in great detail and with beautiful 2D or 3D illustrations and/or videos.

Some talks provided conceptual and technical backgrounds and perspectives of how to use micro-CT for ant morphology, how to better integrate next-generation phenomics into systematics, palaeontology, and evolutionary biology, and how to use micro-CT data and downstream 3D applications for education and public outreach.

A strong focus of the symposium was the use of micro-CT for ant functional morphology, biomechanics, and the evolution of complex phenotypes. Some guests also showed recent advances in histology-based anatomy and reproductive biology, and shared ideas of how to combine traditional histology with modern 3D imaging technologies, such as micro-CT.

We also had a session focusing on the use of 2D linear and 3D geometric morphometrics and their application for ant phylogenetics, taxonomy, trait evolution, and more generally how to use large 3D phenotypical datasets to answer questions in evolutionary biology.

One afternoon was completely devoted to practical demonstrations of how to use 3D data. Our lab shared how we scan data post-processing, 3D virtual reconstructions, 3D animations, virtual/augmented reality, 3D printing. It was useful for sharing knowledge of methodology, and stimulating ideas for future directions and applications.

The three-day symposium provided ample opportunities for socializing and chatting about on-going and potential collaborations, discussions about methods and research results, as well as brainstorming about future directions for the field. At the same time our invitees got the chance to enjoy Japanese and Okinawan culture and cuisine and show off their Karaoke skills.

Invited speakers:
Phil Barden (New Jersey Institute of Technology)
Johan Billen (KU Leuven)
Benjamin Blanchard (U. Chicago and Field Museum)
Ayako Gotoh (Konan U.)
Yoshiaki Hashimoto (U. Hyogo, Museum of Nature and Human Activities, Hyogo)
Fuminori Ito (Kagawa U.)
Roberto Keller (Museu Nacional de História Natural e da Ciência)
Andrea Lucky (U. Florida)
Christian Peeters (U. Pierre et Marie Curie)
Shauna Price (Field Museum)
Andrew Suarez (U. Illinois)

Internal speakers:
Evan P. Economo
Georg Fischer
Nick Friedman
Francisco Hita Garcia
Adam Khalife (U. Pierre et Marie Curie and OIST)

Lab retreat to Iheya

Our lab decided to take a trip to Iheya island the second week of December 2017, in order to explore different parts of Okinawa, but also to celebrate the end of Cong’s PhD defense and Yuka’s proposal defense.

The island is full of goats and sculptures made from marine debris. We also visited a cave, a beach, hiked to the top of a small mountain, and had some good food and drinks.

Nick (our post-doc who does a lot of research on acoustics and birds) also did some bird watching on the island, and below is a list of birds he saw on Iheya:

Eurasian Teal
Chinese Turtle Dove
Japanese Bush Warbler
Pale Thrush
Blue Rock Thrush
Japanese White-eye
Grey faced Buzzard
Japanese Sparrowhawk
Japanese Wood Pigeon
Little Grebe
Great grey egret
Little egret
Pacific Swallow
Intermediate Egret
Zitting Cisticola
Daurian Redstart
Tufted Duck

Apart from bird watching, Takuma (our technician leading the field team who is a great taxonomist) also collected insects during our hike.

Until next time, Iheya!

(Most images taken by Cong Liu)

Rare ant found in OKEON sample



A rarely-collected ant species, Protanilla lini, has been identified from a SLAM trap sample that was collected from Hentona High School (site04) between September and October last year. Protanilla lini belongs to the subfamily Leptanillinae. All members of the family are small, subterranean and often blind ants that are very rarely collected. We know very little about their biology, but we believe they are predators of larger prey such as centipedes or earthworms. It is likely that they perform some form of “dracula ant feeding behavior”, where the adults hunt large prey, but instead of feeding on it themselves they take their larvae to the prey, the adults then drink the haemolymph (or “blood”) of the larvae without causing any physical damage.


Distribution of Protanilla lini, image from antmaps.org


This species has been recorded only in Taiwan and Okinawa. It has been collected only once before in Okinawa, and a couple of times in Taiwan.

The information and the specimen images were provided by our staff scientist Paco Hita Garcia.

Tricks to find creatures: Yoshi’s 3rd column in Ryukyu Shinpo

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Tricks to find creatures
(Written by Masashi Yoshimura, translated by OIST)

It’s become more frequent for me to go deep into forests in Okinawa since I joined the natural environmental research called OKEON Project. Throughout Japan, there are approximately 300 ant species, of which one-third of them inhabit on the main island of Okinawa. One can imagine how bustling its forests are and how easy to encounter a variety of unnamed species without an effort once you are there. Unfortunately, that seems to be different in reality. Subtropical forests look rather barren with the floor devoid of fallen leaves. This doesn’t mean we don’t come across creatures at all. It would be perhaps more correct to say that they are not “in our sight” despite of their frequent presence.

It requires a little bit of training and experience to spot something you want to find in the forests. Looking for living creatures blended well with forests, you need to use your ears that can distinguish quiet sounds, nose that detects smells, as well as eyes that can identify the traces left by targeted creatures.  With a little bit more experience, the forests become a completely different place than before.

My peer on the project said to me, “There is difference between what Yoshimura-san and I see, even though we are walking together in the same place in the forest.”

Here is an interesting fact. Depending on what you wish to find, the weight of your senses shift from one to another. If you acquire the technique to recognize birds, wild animals, lizards, frogs, fish, ants, flowers, fern, mushrooms and others, the forests will become richer in color. It’s not just about animals. With a wider view, the forests become much more exciting and appealing than artificial theme parks. In the forests, there is always a surprise when you encounter those creatures by chance, and you’re thrilled.

The technique to really see things will make even your ordinary neighborhood a place with abundant creatures. As much as Yanbaru, northern part of the island, shrubs in your village is also part of the rich natural environment.


June 10, 2016, Page 12, Ryukyu Shimpo

The original column can be found here

Yoshi’s monthly columns at the Ryukyu Shinpo

male-ant(Image Source: Yoshimura and Fisher 2012)

Our staff scientist, Dr. Masashi Yoshimura, writes a monthly column for Ryukyu Shinpo on the topics of ants and the OKEON project.  In the first column, Yoshi introduced the subjects of ants on Okinawa as well as the OKEON project.  He also gave a brief history of how he first came about studying ants.  Below is the content of the second column translated from Japanese, and the original articles can be found here (column 1column 2).


The World of Male Ants No One Knows about

By Masashi Yoshimura, translated by OIST

Now is the best season for late night shopping. You can see numerous bugs and insects attracted to the light coming through the windows of supermarkets and convenience stores. Squinting at the mass, I can identify the ones I’ve been looking for; male ants. Among other insects, male ants are best-known for growing wings only at the time of emigrating from one nest site to another to disperse their offspring as far as they can. Compared to female ants, the appearance of male ants looks much more similar to that of a bee than an ant. This is the area of my expertise: bee-looking male ants.

Because of their distinguishingly “out-of-stereotype” appearances, much of their world still remain elusive as it is hard even to identify their types. It is one of the area overlooked for many years in ant studies. After the launch of my project, I have encountered a host of unresolved issues, as expected. The first ten years of the project were marked by much of the fumbling in the dark, struggling to find some guidance.

Despite the difficulties, I could still take this audacious step no one had ever taken before. Indeed, it helped me enter into the world of scientific research (I was teaching at middle school at the time). Despite I spoke little English then, I landed a job in the US. Instead of being a “jack of all trades”, it was more important to be “one and only.” Since I was allergic to English when I was a student, conducting research in another language presented many challenges to me. Steeped in research, however, it was a bit surprising that I never felt daunted by these challenges.

When I was in the US, through a word of mouth, I learned about OIST as an international research institution in Okinawa. I made up my mind to move back to Japan with the hope to be of some use. Instead, I’ve been given a lot of help from people in Okinawa, which underpins my daily research activities. Through the “OKEON Project,” we work to identify and understand change in the nature, so that the future will be more sustainable. Realizing the extent of the project, it requires all of our experiences mobilized in an effort to persistently pursue our goal.