Scientists, Beware of the Predatory Ant Lion, Retraction Watch

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Short Communication

Scientists, Beware of the Predatory Ant Lion, Retraction Watch

Corresponding author: Dr. Jaime A. Teixeira da Silva, P. O. Box 7, Miki-cho post office, Ikenobe 3011-2, Kagawa-ken, 761-0799, Japan; Email: jaimetex@yahoo.com

Abstract

The ant lion (Myrmeleon sp.) is a fascinating insect, not so much the adult stage, but rather the young larval stage. Though small, the vicious nature of its predatory behavior, entrapping its prey, often making escape impossible by showering them with sand, the ant lion is a formidable predator. Once the prey’s carcass has been tossed aside, or left to dry, the ant lion then awaits its next unsuspecting prey to fall, first into its pit, and then into its mandibles. Retraction Watch is a sci- ence watchdog that has grown in prominence, and welath, despite being a “registered charity” that functions very much like an ant lion but shares none of the properties that are reminiscent of ants, such as their socially acceptable and highly inte- grated nature, or of lions, with confident, imposed, but respected predatory dominance. Retraction Watch, like the lion ant, hides in wait. This spoof paper, a parody of sorts, draws a somewhat tongue-in-cheek entomological analogy between ant lions and Retraction Watch, based on personal experience with both. Similarities and differences have been tabulated.

Keywords: Center for Science Integrity Inc.; COPE; Ethical Boundaries; Myrmeleon sp.; Predatory

Dear Editors,

Insects are such fascinating creatures, both because of their socially marvelous skills, in the case of ants, as well as in their behaviors and life-cycle dynamics, including their ability to metamorphose. One of the most riveting aspects of insects are the predatory skills that some of them have evolved. One of the most fascinating predatory insects to observe, at least in its larval stage, is the ant lion (Myrmeleon sp.). This is because, despite its apparently large, visually obtrusive and apparently clumsy body, the head carries a powerful set of mandibles that look like fangs (Figure. 1D) that endow the ant lion with its deadliest weapon. The ant lion’s most common prey are ants, but any insect that comes within reach of those fangs will also serve perfectly well as a meal. It is not only the misleading nature of the physical appearance of the ant lion, namely the deadly mandibles on a bulky and clumsy body – which have led the ant lion to also be known as the doodlebug – that char- acterizes the true brilliance of its predatory nature. It is in fact the pit, an inverted cone-shaped hole, that the ant lion digs into usually sandy, dry soil, and into which unsuspecting passing

prey fall. These structural features and tactical infrastructure define the truly architectural and predatory brilliance of the ant lion. A wonderfully simple, easy-to-understand descrip- tion of the predatory nature of ant lions provided by Donya Camp , found on a Texas A&M Extension Horticulture web- page, as well as broad background from Wikipedia , will serve as the basis for the ideas used in the comparison in this paper.

For academics, primarily scientists, and even more specifically biomedical scientists, who are aware of the blog, Retraction Watch , will know that this is a blog that transcends its stat- ed scope, i.e., retractions. In fact, it is a site that specializes in, among other issues, scientific misconduct, science policy, and ethical regulation, predating upon science’s misfortunes and scientists erroneous nature or misconduct, to make meals of sensationalist stories. This in fact makes, at first appearance, Retraction Watch, a very profoundly important website for academics. Run by a biomedical writer cum journalist, Ivan Oransky (Figure. 1A1, A2, C), and an anesthesiologist and sci- ence writer, Adam Marcus (Figure. 1B), Retraction Watch has established itself as one of science’s most visited and lauded

news and scandal websites. On the surface, the Retraction Watch objectives appear noble, beautifully crafted like the ant lion’s pit, but a deadly apparatus is in place, carefully crafted, brilliantly designed, and slyly hidden. This hunting apparatus relies on a subtle balance of shaming and information sharing, that leaves academics who are profiled for their errors in their research, academic careers or publications, mostly scarred for life. Like mummified entomological samples, ant lions that are dug up to exemplify some natural history museum’s insect collection, shamed scientists are also being documented and archived in the Retraction Watch retraction database , an indis- pensable tool for any up and coming entomologist, or academ- ic, that wishes to see which competitor has a black mark, or which research has a brown fecal stain. If prey is lucky enough, it may even merit a prized slot on the retraction leaderboard

, although it will be difficult to beat the current record holder, Yoshitaka Fujii, with 183 fecal smears.

A1

A2

B

C

D

Figure 1. The similarities and differences between the “stiff bristles” of the ant lion’s body and the Retraction Watch leadership. (A1, A2) Two samples of cranial “bristles” (Ivan Oransky); (B) facial “bristles” (Ivan Oransky); (C) relative absence of cranial “bristles” on the crown, but an apparent abundance of body “bristles”, as evidenced by the up- per appendages (arms) (Adam Marcus); (D) ant lion. Yellow and red arrows indicate cranial or body bristles, or lack thereof. Blue arrow indicates the mandibles

Sources: (A1) http://retractionwatch.com/meet-the-retraction- watch-staff/about/; (A2) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/ how-one-doctor-is-waging-war-on-bad-science_us_56cb2f54e4b- 0928f5a6c7aa6; (B) http://retractionwatch.com/meet-the-retrac- tion-watch-staff/about-adam-marcus/; (C) https://journalism.nyu. edu/about-us/event/2017-spring/bad-science-good-telling-dif- ference/ (video still); (D) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Antlion_turned_90.svg (CC-BY license).

This predatory operation is well funded, having now managed to accumulate over 1 million US$ in funding for this “charity”, a highly profitable business, The Center for Science Integrity Inc. (CSI ), the “parent company” for Retraction Watch. Ivan Oransky is the CSI president and Adam Marcus is the secretary. Until April 2017, the CSI received US$ 830,000 from three US- based philanthropic organizations: the Laura and John Arnold Foundation , the MacArthur Foundation , and the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust .

Much to the delight, undoubtedly of the partnering predators, but of not such jubilation to the predated scientists, was the news received on April 6, 2017, that another $325,000 was received from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust , to sustain this profitable science-shaming predatory platform.

The detailed functionality of Retraction Watch and its opera- tions are not discussed in this paper, as such issues are dealt with elsewhere, and separately. Instead, this paper aims to draw a crude ecological comparison between ant lions and Re- traction Watch, as a comical tongue-in-cheek parody or spoof, showing similarities and differences between the two (Table 1; Figure. 1).

In addition to the comparative statements made in Table 1, Wikipedia has a wealth of statements that are worthy of deep reflection, as a supplement to the visual evidence provided in Figure. 1, as some of them have such profound intellectual depth that can shed light on the activities and modus operandi of Retraction Watch (capitals all substituted with lower-case letters; some of the descriptions are truly graphic in nature, and may hurt or offend readers, so reader discretion is ad- vised): “the larvae are sometimes referred to as doodlebugs because of the strange marks they leave in the sand”, “antlions are worldwide in distribution”, “some larvae hide under debris or ambush their prey among leaf litter”, “antlions are poorly represented in the fossil record”, “the antlions’ closest living relatives are thought to be the owlflies”, “the predatory ac- tions of the larvae have attracted attention throughout history, and antlions have been mentioned in literature since classical times”, “the exact meaning of the name “antlion” is uncertain”, “the adult has … a long, slender abdomen”, “the adults are very feeble fliers and are normally found fluttering about at night in search of a mate”, “males of most species have a unique struc- ture, a bristle-bearing knob known as a “pilula axillaris”, at the base of the rear wing”, “the abdomen in males is usually longer than in females and often has an extra lobe”, “the antlion larva is a ferocious-looking animal with a robust, fusiform body, a very plump abdomen, and a thorax bearing three pairs of walk- ing legs”, “the prothorax forms a slender mobile “neck” for the large, square, flattened head, which bears an enormous pair of sickle-like jaws with several sharp, hollow projections”, “the mandibles each contain a deep groove over which the maxilla fits neatly, forming an enclosed canal for injecting venom to

Ant lions Retraction Watch
Differences
Insects Humans
Metamorphosis: larval to pupal stage Consistent; only change in size and cognizance
Live in soil 1 Live in New York
Useful to garden ecology Informative, but not useful 2
Insect predator, mainly ants, but other insects as well Human predator 3
Juvenile phase (larvae) predatory; adult phase feed on nectar and pollen* Juvenile phase possibly feeding on nectar 4; adult phase predatory
Traps (pit) open, in dry, often covered locations* Traps (blog, Twitter, and allied sites like PubPeer) concealed /

closed 5

Pits “sheltered from exposure to high winds and intense

sunlight”*

Trap doors are hidden, but the trap camouflage is exposed to

the limelight and intense windy support

“Adults are rarely encountered in the wild because they are primarily active in the evening. During the day, Ant Lions rest and are usually motionless and quite

well-camouflaged by its transparent wings and brownish

body.”*

The Retraction Watch adults tend to be active day and night with their predatory activity, including planning the development of the next pit, or waiting 6 for their next prey.
“The ability to subdue prey much larger than itself is due, in part, to its entire body being covered in stiff bristles that helps anchor it to the sand while countering the fleeing efforts of its prey. In fact, the bristles are

forward-pointing, which provides additional leverage to

firmly anchor its body against the vigorous struggles of its prey.”*

Not much published research, or blogs, exist on the relationship between “stiff bristles” and the predatory nature of Retraction Watch. 7
Similarities
Predatory
Doodlebug: lethargic and clumsy physical appearance, but with highly trained predatory skills
Large body and small head (relative size) 8
Grotesque (appearance and predatory behavior)
Lethal hunting ability, including stealth and poison
Predation by entrapment
Pit size increases as larval size increases 9
“The Ant Lion larva waits at the bottom of its pit for an ant or other insect to slip on the loose sand and fall in. The unsuspecting prey falls to the center of the pit and into the waiting jaws of the Ant Lion larva, mealtime is underway! Prey will oftentimes attempt to scramble up the steeply inclined walls of the pit. Such desperate efforts to escape its circumstance are typically to no avail. An Ant Lion larva quickly thwarts such escape attempts by rapidly flicking showers of loose sand,

which further destabilizes the wall of a pit and thereby draws the prey downwards.”*

“The larva is a fearsome-appearing creature and its head bears a very impressive and sizable pair of sicklelike jaws (known as mandibles) that are armed with numerous sharp, hollow projections. The mandibles have a piercing-sucking function.

After seizing its prey, the larva paralyzes it with poison injected at the first bite. Additional digestive enzymes are injected to breakdown the internal tissues of its prey and the larva then sucks out its vital juices. After consuming the liquefied contents of the prey’s body, an Ant Lion larva rather unceremoniously flicks the lifeless, drained carcass out of the pit.

Thereafter, the larva repairs the pit once again for the next unsuspecting victim.”*

“Ant Lion larvae have also been reported to feed on the dreaded red imported fire ant.”* 10
Unknowns
Reproductive behavior; additional skill sets and adaptive strategies

* Terms used from the online article by Donya Camp at Texas A&M Extension Horticulture web-page (see footer citation 1 in the main text), as well as from Wikipedia (see footer citation 2 in the main text).

1Soil habitats might also be inhabitable in New York, which would then be a similarity.

2The use tends to be self-serving, either to attract funding, or to expand a narcissistic profile; the usefulness to academia is highly debatable, especially by those who are the victims (prey) and who are profiled.

3The predation specializes in academics, but can also occasionally include select politicians.

4There is no literature on the dietary habits of the juvenile phases of the Retraction Watch team, nor any publicly verifiable accounts.

5In fact, there is a community of Retraction Watch allies, each with their own separate traps, some of which operate like the trapdoor spider. 6Retraction Watch is a highly evolved predator and can, on occasion, perform the function of other predators. In this case, the ability to pounce on its prey, and not simply wait for passive entrapment, is a particularly highly advanced skill.

7Publicly available visual evidence of the caput (i.e., the cranial exterior or the head) (Figure. 1A) or the exterior appearance of the mandible (Figure. 1B) of Ivan Oransky indicates that there are bristle-like structures, whose orientation may vary. The relative lack of bristles on the caput of Adam Marcus, however (Figure. 1C), suggests that this topic deserves greater experimental evidence before any definitive conclusion can be drawn.

8This similarity in physical appearance would only apply to Ivan Oransky. Some rudimentary evidence, not supported by data, exists .

9There does not appear to any study that has shown a link, or a correlation, between pit size and thoracic diameter, for example, or body weight

(such a study would make for an excellent selection for a high Impact Factor journal like Science or Nature).

9The immigrant or foreign status of prey is of no importance, indicating that predation is broad, and possibly non-selective.

immobilise the victim”, “the larva is clad in forward-pointing bristles which help it to anchor itself and exert greater trac- tion, enabling it to subdue prey considerably larger than itself”, “antlion larvae are unusual among insects in lacking an anus” (that was a surprising discovery), “all the metabolic waste gen- erated during the larval stage is stored; some is used to spin the silk for the cocoon and the rest is eventually voided as me- conium at the end of its pupal stage”, “antlions live in a range of usually dry habitats including open woodland floors, scrub- clad dunes, hedge bases, river banks, road verges, under raised buildings and in vacant lots”, “ambush predators, catching prey is a risky business because food arrives unpredictably and, for the species that make one, maintaining the trap is costly” (as indicated above, funding is not an issue, with over 1 million US$ for predatory activities), “the larvae therefore have low metabolic rates and can survive for long periods without food”, “they can take several years to complete their life-cycle; they mature faster with plentiful food, but can survive for many months without feeding”, “in cooler climates they dig their way deeper and remain inactive during the winter” (the evidence about Retraction Watch does not appear to support this state- ment), “after about twenty minutes, the adult’s wings are fully opened and it flies off in search of a mate”, “the adult typically lives for about 25 days, but some insects survive for as long as 45 days” (the funding guaranteed on April 6, 2017 from the Le- ona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust will ensure the survival of the adults for much longer than this period), “The larva is a voracious predator. Within a few minutes of seizing its prey with its jaws and injecting it with venom and enzymes, it begins to suck out the digestion products”, “Having marked out the chosen site by a circular groove, the antlion larva starts to crawl backwards, using its abdomen as a plough to shovel up the soil”, “By the aid of one front leg, it places consecutive heaps of loosened particles upon its head, then with a smart jerk throws each little pile clear of the scene of operations. Pro- ceeding thus, it gradually works its way from the circumfer- ence towards the center. As it slowly moves round and round, the pit gradually gets deeper and deeper, until the slope angle reaches the critical angle of repose (that is, the steepest angle the sand can maintain, where it is on the verge of collapse from slight disturbance). When the pit is completed, the larva settles down at the bottom, buried in the soil with only the jaws pro- jecting above the surface, often in a wide-opened position on either side of the very tip of the cone”, “The steep-sloped trap that guides prey into the larva’s mouth while avoiding crater avalanches is one of the simplest and most efficient traps in the animal kingdom”, “Since the sides of the pit consist of loose sand at its angle of repose, they afford an insecure foothold to any small insects that inadvertently venture over the edge, such as ants. Slipping to the bottom, the prey is immediately seized by the lurking antlion; if it attempts to scramble up the treacherous walls of the pit, it is speedily checked in its efforts and brought down by showers of loose sand which are thrown at it from below by the larva. By throwing up loose sand from the bottom of the pit, the larva also undermines the sides of

the pit, causing them to collapse and bring the prey with them. Thus, it does not matter whether the larva actually strikes the prey with the sand showers”, “the larva sucks the fluids out of its victim. After the contents are consumed, the dry carcass is flicked out of the pit. The larva readies the pit once again by throwing out collapsed material from the center, steepening the pit walls to the angle of repose”, and “In popular folklore in the southern United States, people recite a poem or chant to make the antlion come out of its hole” (readers are also drawn to the Myrmecoleon ). Readers are advised that Wikipedia rep- resents a rapidly-evolving platform of information subsidized by charitable donations, and thus the veracity of all claims made above should be verified against the original sources as indicated on the Wikipedia page. Those readers in search of practical ways to deal with such ant lion or similar predators are advised to engage in Half-Life 2 .

The insect and publishing worlds are full of predators. In the latter, some have even called on a ban of such predators (Beall, 2016)[1], which could prove to be a thorn in the side of the Beall – Oransky / Retraction Watch friendship. Although many aspects of ant lions and Retraction Watch are still “black boxes” of information waiting to be explored, entomologists and aca- demia are encouraged to open up their data sets, including all negative data that carries a wealth of information (Ioannidis, 2005)[2], to publish it as open access, subject their papers to open peer review and, to avoid the competitive nature of the publish-or-perish, caused by false incentives in place by vora- cious predators, preprints are recommended. Since sample size is small for Retraction Watch, it is anticipated that there may be errors and bias, some significant, and psychological prim- ing may be required before such studies take place (Falk and Gelman, 2016)[3]. Readers are cautioned about the possibility of reference rot should the Retraction Watch blog disappear (Burnhill et al., 2015)[4], and that the Falk and Gelman (2016)

[3] may be removed, or disappear, when this ant lion paper is published. Young prodigal scientists are cautioned about cit- ing this paper . Finally, should any errors exist, entomological, or otherwise, this paper can easily be edited or amended, in a very ethical manner, avoiding thus retractions, in as many versions as are required to satisfy all of the wide readership it will attract, based on the professional advice of “A group of publishing experts”, including the Chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), Virginia Barbour (Barbour et al., 2017)[5], as indicated by Retraction Watch .

Disclaimer and conflicts of interest

The author is not associated with any academic institute, blog or web-site. The author was profiled multiple times by Retrac- tion Watch. This is a light-hearted spoof article (non-scientific) because Retraction Watch is appreciative of well-articulated, original spoofs .

References
  1. Beall J. Predatory journals: Ban predators from the scientific record. Nature. 2016, 534(7607): 326.
  2. Ioannidis JPA. Why most published research find- ings are false. PLoS Medicine. 2005, 2(8): e124.
  3. FalkJ,GelmanA.NOTRUMP!:Astatisticalexerciseinpriming.5 pp. Self-published / unpublished: (last accessed: April 7, 2016).
  4. Burnhill P, Mewissen M, Wincewicz R. Reference rot in schol- arly statement: threat and remedy. Insights. 2015, 28(2): 55–61.
  5. Barbour V, Bloom T, Lin J, Moylan E. Amending published articles: time to rethink retractions and corrections? bioRxiv. 2017.

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