The Ants of Africa
Chapter 5 - Biodiversity - a historical note

Published as "Correspondence" in Antenna, 33, 3, 2009.

Giving credit where credit is due

Brian Taylor

11 Grazingfield, Wilford, Nottingham, NG11 7FN


I have just read the Book Review by Graham W. Elmes (Antenna, 32: 216) of Charlotte Sleigh's Six Legs Better - a cultural review of myrmecology. While I hope to catch up with it ere long, I am assuming that Graham was citing the book when he wrote how William Morton Wheeler first used the term myrmecology in 1906. I tracked this down to, perhaps, Wheeler's writing of "an American of somewhat doubtful reputation as a myrmecologist".

Fifty-three years earlier, Gustav Mayr wrote of "Dr. Nylander, der Gründer der neueren Myrmecologie", i.e. founder of the new myrmecology. William Nylander had written his "Monographiam Formicarum Borealum" just a few years earlier (Nylander, 1846). Mayr himself, in his pioneering paper on "Einige neue Ameisen" (Mayr, 1853), had given some of the first taxonomic descriptions that were accurate and sufficient enough for the reader to feel assured he could identify the ant in question. Earlier, Lepeletier de Saint-Fargeau (1835) in a great treatise on Hymenoptera had given quite detailed descriptions of Formicidae in Vol. I., with excellent drawings in Vol. VI. Nylander also had given some detailed descriptions but those, like the rest of his paper, were written in Latin.

Two years later, the now Med. Dr. Gustav L. Mayr wrote the "Formicina austriaca" (Mayr, 1855). This set the benchmark for all ant taxonomy, including full taxonomic definitions and, for the first time, dichotomous keys. The only thing missing, apart from five examples of wing structure, were drawings. In the "Die Ameisen des baltischen Bernsteins", there are over 100 accurate, high quality drawings (Mayr, 1868). Mayr's last ant taxonomy paper was published in 1907. All this from a man who was a schoolmaster or principal and was never employed in the Vienna Museum. In the same era, Frederick Smith at the British Museum was writing minimalist descriptions in the style unchanged since Fabricius in 1787.

Now we come to Auguste Forel, who as he recorded in 1922, began publishing in 1869. In 1920, he wrote in his 231st paper how the glaucoma prevented him from continuing to describe ants. His first major ant work was his 1874, "Les Fourmis de la Suisse", in which he expressed his admiration for the works of Mayr and related how he adopted Mayr's methods for the analytical tables. In a curious move, Forel noted how it was contrary to reproach Mayr for "la trop grande multiplication des genres". In his short biography of Forel's hyperproductive protégé, Felix Santschi, Wehner noted how all eminent myrmecologists before Forel (1874) had strictly used binomials (Wehner, 1990). Forel introduced the deliberate splitting of species into subspecies and variations, although he used the term "race" and Santschi used "stirps" for these lower levels. Forel himself said that he used "races" for species that were badly determined or showed transitions between them, one could also call them "sub-species". Seemingly he felt this would be helpful for dealing with intermediate or aberrant forms. The difficulties this system imposed were summed up by André (1881) "with the ants the separation of species presents great difficulties, and nothing is harder than to decide where the species ends and the variety commences". This muddled and muddling thinking prevailed for the next 80 years. Its legacy still makes it difficult for any one trying to sort out field collections and to evaluate variations in behaviour, etc. Many of Forel's taxonomic descriptions were quite brief, often based on comparisons with other species (thus assuming the reader had access to the earlier publications) and very rarely had illustrations. He did not produce any comparative works or keys. Thus, I would not rank Forel as one of the three greatest "ant men".

My digging for this note threw up some minor nuggets. From Forel (1886), one was that he used a Hartnack microscope, with objective systems 9, 7, etc. Another was his note that Latreille had the habit of attributing ants with darker colours than those of Mayr and later authors. Thus Latreille used black for ants he, Forel, and others would call brown, and, "marron" (chestnut) or "marron clair" for "rousses" or "roux un peu jaunâtre", etc. Since studying the role ants played in the dissemination of the cocoa black pod disease in Nigeria, I have often wondered where the term ant tent came from and who first used it. Wheeler (1905) gave up an answer - Couper, 1863, Remarks on Tent-building ants. Proc. Entomol. Soc. Phila. Feb. 1863, 273-274, wrote of "An ant .. that constructs a kind of papier-mâché tent over Aphides, parasitic on a species of Alder".

Biographical note. Gustav L. Mayr, b. October 12, 1830; d. July 7, 1908 in Rozzano (close to Milan:). In 1863-1882 he was appointed as a college teacher ("Realschul-Professor") in Vienna and worked up to 1892 in collaboration with the Museum of Natural History (at that time "k.k. Hof-Cabinet"), but was not appointed to the Museum. In 1894 he was honoured by the title of a "Kaiserlicher Rat" ("Imperial Councillor"). Some of his collection is deposited in the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien, Austria (NHMW) and some is in the Staatliches Museum: für Tierkunde, Dresden (SMTD). (With thanks to Prof Luitfried v. S.-Plawen for information).


Almost all can be downloaded from

André, E. 1881-1886. Species des Hyménoptères d'Europe et d'Algérie 2: 1-891.

Fabricius, J. C. 1787. Mantissa insectorum, sistens eorum species nuper detectas adiectis characteribus genericis, differentiis specificis, emendationibus, observationibus. Vol. 1. Christ. Gottl. Proft, Hafniae

Forel, A. 1874. Les fourmis de la Suisse. Systématique. Notices anatomiques et physiologiques. Architecture. Distribution géographique. Nouvelles expériences et observations de moeurs. Neue Denkschriften der Allgemeinen Schweizerischen Gesellschaft für die Gesammten Naturwissenschaften 26: 1-452

Forel, A. 1886. Etudes myrmécologiques en 1886. Annales de la Société Entomologique de Belgique 30: 131-215

Forel, A. 1920. Deux fourmis nouvelles du Congo. Bulletin de la Société Vaudoise des Sciences Naturelle 52: 479-481

Forel, A. 1922. Glanures myrmécologiques en 1922. Revue Suisse de Zoologie 30: 87-102

Lepeletier de Saint-Fargeau, A.L.M. 1835 Histoire Naturelle des Insectes. Hyménoptères 1, 547 pp. Paris. The Lepeltier de Saint-Fargeau volumes are downloadable from

Mayr, G. 1853. Beiträge zur Kenntniss der Ameisen. Verhandlungen des Zoologisch-Botanischen Vereins in Wien, 3: 101-114

Mayr. G. 1855. Formicina austriaca. Beschreibung der bisher im oesterreichischen Kaiserstaate aufgefundenen Ameisen nebst Hinzufuegung jener in Deutschland, in der Schweiz und in Italien vorkommenden Ameisen. Verhandlungen des Zoologisch-Botanischen Vereins in Wien, 5: 273-478

Mayr, G. 1868. Die Ameisen des baltischen Bernsteins. Beiträge zur Naturkunde Preussens. Königlichen Physikalisch- Ökonomischen Gesellschaft zu Königsberg 1: 1-102

Nylander, W. 1846. Adnotationes in monographiam formicarum borealium Europae. Acta Societatis Scientiarum Fennicae 2: 875-944

Wehner, R. 1990. On the brink of introducing sensory ecology: Felix Santschi (1872-1940) - Tabib-en-Neml. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 27: 295-306

Wheeler, W. M. 1905. The habits of the tent-building ant (Cremastogaster Lineolata Say). Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 22: 1-18

Wheeler, W.M. 1906. On the founding of colonies by queen ants, with special reference to the parasitic and slave-making species. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 22: 33-105

©2009 - Brian Taylor CBiol FSB FRES
11, Grazingfield, Wilford, Nottingham, NG11 7FN, U.K.