Tips for keying ants

Tips For Keying Ants

  • Introduction: taxonomic keys
  • Annotated list of useful taxonomic keys
  • Family: Is it really an ant (Family Formicidae)?
  • Caste: Is it a male reproductive, gyne (female reproductive) or worker (non-reproductive female)?
  • Subfamily: Myrmecine, Formicine, Ponerine, or Dolichoderine?

    Introduction: taxonomic keys

    Using taxonomic keys to identify an organism takes a great deal of patience. Most organismal groups have a unique set of terms used to describe morphological characters. For example, while attempting to identify ants you will have to understand terms such as clypeus, petiole, antennal scrobe, epinotal spine, and pygidium.

    Learning these terms and how best to choose between confusing dichotomies is learning how to key ants. It takes time and practice and hopefully some of these tips will help get past some of the initial frustrations.

    The Japanese Ant Database Group has a helpful description of ant taxonomy terminology


    Annotated list of useful taxonomic keys

    In order to learn these terms and practice using keys you must obtain a good taxonomical key.

    We suggest:

    To Genus:

    Bolton, B. 1994. Identification guide to the ant genera of the world. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. Includes a detailed key to the genera of the world with excellent SEM images of the genera. Be sure to check out the accompanying catalogue of the ants of the world (Bolton 1995).

    Holldobler, B., and E.O. Wilson. 1990. The ants. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. This is the encyclopedia of myrmecology and it includes an easy to use key to the genera of the world accompanied by illustrations of the genera.


    To Species:

    Creighton, W.S. 1950. The ants of North America. Bulletin: Museum of Comparative Zoology 104:1-585. This key is rather dated but it is still useful for some genera that have not been revised.

    MacKay, W., D. Lowrie, A. Fisher, E. MacKay, F. Barnes, and D. Lowrie. 1988. The ants of Los Alamos County, New Mexico (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). pp. 79-132 in JC Trager (ed). Advances in Myrmecology. E.J. Brill: New York, New York, USA. This is a recent key that is useful because it includes keys to several genera that were recently revised.

    Wheeler, G.C. and J. Wheeler. 1963. The ants of North Dakota. University of North Dakota Press, Grand Forks, North Dakota, USA (updated in Wheeler and Wheeler 1977). This is an excellent key to the ants of North Dakota and surrounding areas. There are reference illustrations throughout the book to help explain difficult dichotomies. This key is the most useful guide for keying the ants of Minnesota.

    ----------. 1986. The ants of Nevada. Natural History Museum of Los Angelos County: Los Angeles, California, USA. This is a fairly recent key that includes excellent reference illustrations. It is very useful for recently revised groups such as the Formica fusca group.


    These keys to the ants of specific areas are usually adequate but it is sometimes necessary to go to the primary literature for recently revised groups. For example:

    Snelling, R.R. 1988. Taxonomic notes on Nearctic species of Camponotus, Subgenus Myrmentoma (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). pp. 55-78 in JC Trager (ed). Advances in Myrmecology. E.J. Brill: New York, New York, USA.

    Snelling, R.R., and W..F Buren. 1979. Description of a new species of slave-making ant in the Formica sanguinea group (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Great Lakes Entomologist 18: 69-78.

    Trager, J.C. 1984. A revision of the genus Paratrechina (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) of the continental United States. Sociobiology 9: 49-162.

    Wing, M. W. 1968. Taxonomic revision of the nearctic ant genus Acanthomyops (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) .Memoirs of the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station, no 405, 173 p.


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    Please send any questions or comments regarding these pages to Tim Linksvayer or Andy McCall