It's hard to imagine that the tiniest of creatures, the ant, could have any significant impact upon the landscape, but in Argentina the Tacaru ant (Camponotus termitarius) has been busy, and the results of its handiwork are now visible from space.
Entomologist and photographer Alex Wild published his findings on the newly launched PhotoSynthesis blog (my new favorite ... I highly recommend subscribing). And apparently this is not an uncommon phenomenon in highly degraded lands.
In the Entre Rios region of Argentina there once stood a rainforest. It was leveled and then used for intensive agricultural purposes, causing decades of soil erosion (PDF). As Wild says, this is "... an excellent example of how human land-use changes can convert an innocuous local species into a pest. In this case, the problem is large enough to be tracked from orbit."
The tiny pock marks in the Google image above are ant hills, thousands and thousands of ant hills each about 1-2 feet tall. Apparently as land erosion gets severe, competitive species of birds and other insects are completely driven out, leaving the ants behind to till the soil. With over 12,000 known species, ants are considered the most successful species in dominating global terrestrial ecosystems.
One of Wild's hobbies is tracking insect invasions using Google Earth. Though the Tacaru invasion is the first insect found via satellite, apparently this is not an uncommon phenomenon and Wild has several examples posted up on his own blog of other ant "earth movers."
Here's a note from ScienceBlogs editor about the new PhotoSynthesis blog which promises to curate the best in science and nature photography:
Through our explorations of the blogsphere, we've discovered an astounding range of captivating science images, from the many microscopic components of a cell to the remote corners of the universe captured by Hubble. On Photo Synthesis, we aim to bring you the best of what's out there. Every month we will feature the work of a different photoblogger, exposing worlds both small and large, familiar and exotic.
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