No, this photo doesn’t portray one of the new creatures on HBO’s “House of the Dragon,” or an outtake from a horror movie. It’s an award-winning close-up photo of … an ant.
You’ve most likely never seen an ant like this before: in an ultra-closeup, Lithuanian photographer Eugenijus Kavaliauskas snapped a shot of an ant’s face that looks like a still from some fantasy epic like The Lord of the Rings.
The picture has been honored as an ‘Image of Distinction’ in the 2022 Small World Photomicrography Competition run by Nikon, and it’s easy to see why. The snap has also been attracting a lot of attention and plaudits over on Reddit.
The picture is a close-up of the mandibles and antennae of Camponotus – a common carpenter ant. They make their nests inside wood, mostly in forest environments, and snack on parts of dead insects, nectar, and honeydew released by aphids.
There is some clever cropping going on in this image. According to the Washington Post, the parts of the ant’s face that look like glowing red eyes are in fact the bases of its antennae, while what appear to be yellow teeth are very small ‘trigger’ hairs that ants use to sense the surrounding environment.
Yet for Kavaliauskas, the photo he captured by magnifying an ant’s face five times under a stereo 10x microscope is an example of “God’s designs and the many interesting, beautiful, unknown miracles under people’s feet,” he told The Washington Post.
Having tried his hand at photographing birds of prey, Kavaliauskas now focuses his attention on insects. You can see plenty of other fascinating examples of his talent and eye for detail on his Instagram page.
“There are no horrors in nature, only lack of knowledge,” Kavaliauskas said. “When I began photomicrography and before that, I was like everyone else — all beetles and insects were monsters to me. Now the situation has turned upside down. Many insects are not as pleasing to the eye as a cat, but it all depends on your point of view.”
Where some find horror, scientists see a species that helps plants disperse, aerates soil and keeps ecosystems clean by acting as a sort of top-notch waste disposal and recycling service.
Even if the carpenter ant isn’t a stunner — or, say, as adorable as a golden retriever puppy — it’s cute in other ways, said Maxcer, who’s also the director of the Ant Network, a science communication organization.
Carpenter ants have an “almost domesticated relationship” with aphids, tiny bugs that suck plants’ juices and then turn them into honeydew, a sugary liquid they secrete that’s an important source of food for carpenter ants. Aphids, he said, are “the most pathetic defender of its own body,” so carpenter ants take it upon themselves to protect them from predators, guide them and keep them warm during the winter months.
“What these ants do is farm the aphids, kind of like how humans farm cattle,” Maxcer said. “We protect our dairy cows, we feed them, we make sure that nothing’s going to hurt them, and in return we get milk. Well, carpenter ants do the same, but they get honeydew.”
“What ants do in ecosystems is really far-ranging,” Maxcer said. “If you took ants out of most ecosystems around the world, you would see them change dramatically and, in some instances, collapse.”