U biologists have identified 33 new species of predatory ants in Central America and Caribbean. They named a third of the tiny but monstrous insects after ancient Mayan lords and demons.
The biologists aim not only to discover new species, but to also understand the differences between species and where their habitats are. Knowing what species are on the planet, where they can be found and in what quantity can help scientists establish information about both biology and ecosystems.
“[Discoveries such as this provide] a library of biological forms that are available for bio-prospecting … in agriculture, pharmaceuticals and so on [as well as] a better understanding of the components of ecosystems,” said Jack Longino, professor of biology. “We get information about ecosystem change due to climate change and knowledge of where biodiversity hotspots … and new groups of organisms [are] for basic evolutionary and ecological studies.”
The biologists collected about 9 percent of the ants they have discovered over the past 30 years working in Costa Rica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras.
“We are mapping all species, old and new,” Longino said.
Researchers hope documenting the new species will help catalogue Earth’s biodiversity and identify pest species, as well as the species that might be used to control them.
Lynn Bohs, professor of biology, said that the researchers use sifting devices shaped like tennis rackets with canvas bags attached to collect the insects.
There are 15,000 to 30,000 known species of ants worldwide. New genetic differences are becoming apparent as geneticists analyze more ants. When researchers observe the species gathered, they look for patterns in features, usually clusters. When they find clusters of features, they hypothesize that they represent genetic barriers and a history of genetic separation of lineages. Researchers then identify new species based on the existing species already described and the observed data to form species hypotheses. The hypotheses are based on sets of museum specimens that are carefully prepared and labeled with collection data.
Most modern ants are scavengers, famed for attacking picnics instead of venomous predators.
The new ant species are much smaller than common household ants and live in the rotting wood and dead leaves that litter the forest floors in Central America.
“They are nearly eyeless and crawl around in leaf litter,” Longino said. These ants use primitive compound eyes to detect light, but they cannot form images. They also coat themselves with thin layers of clay, which act as a type of camouflage. Researchers still do not know how they find their prey, which are presumably soft-bodied insects, spiders, millipedes and centipedes.