MSU ant curator contributes to global biodiversity map project

Contact: Meg Henderson

STARKVILLE, Mississippi – A Mississippi-based scientific illustrator and ant curator contributes to a global insect map and also uses his talent to design covers for a leading scientific journal.

Cover of Science Advances with art design by Joe MacGown

Mississippi Entomological Museum Ant Curator Joe MacGown is part of a team producing a groundbreaking map of global ant biodiversity that stands poised to change understandings of where and how ants live and function, and where stricter conservation guidelines and policies may be programs are needed to protect them.

The project is led by Benoit Guénard and Evan Economo from the Biodiversity and Biocomplexity Unit at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan. The scientists used machine learning to create the map based on marking precise coordinates from published ant studies. From this data, they can use statistical models to predict the geographic distribution of each species.

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The maps and dataset were published in a recent issue of Science Advances, the open-access multidisciplinary journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. As well as being a major contributor to the content of the map, MacGown is an accomplished artist who created the cover illustration for the August 5 issue of the journal. He said both the map and his years of research inspired the featured artwork.

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“The image of the world map is a drawing from 1689, when the world was not fully known. The ants I drew are Solenopsis invicta, or red imported fire ants, known for their migratory activity and economic importance,” he said.

MacGown has worked at MSU’s Entomology Museum since 1988, even after semi-retiring in 2020. Two decades ago, the museum joined a US Department of Agriculture-funded fire ant study and worked to identify and collect other ant species that interact with fire ants. It built up a sizeable collection of ants and other insects during this period.

“In the beginning there weren’t any databases of research collections on ants, so I started a website for the museum, initially for my own use,” MacGown said. “Over the years we have added data from our expanded collections. In terms of the number of specimens, our collection is the second largest publicly accessible university collection. As one of the few ant websites 20 years ago, our work at MSU paved the way for today’s big websites.”

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For more information on the Mississippi Entomological Museum, visit To access the Science Advances issue with MacGown’s cover, visit

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