Rare ant species rediscovered in North Carolina treetops

In the expanse of the eastern United States, there exists a remarkably rare ant species, documented in only a handful of records. Michelle Kirchner, a researcher from North Carolina State University, not only discovered these elusive ants in the Triangle region of North Carolina but achieved a groundbreaking feat by being the first to document an entire colony—an invaluable contribution for scientists, taxonomists, and ant enthusiasts alike.

The ant in question, Aphaenogaster mariae Forel, belongs to the rare category of spine-waisted ants. Diverging from their relatives that predominantly nest in forest floor detritus, these ants spend the majority of their lives in the elevated realms of tree canopies. While an arboreal lifestyle is common among ants in tropical areas, the prevalence of such ants in the Triangle region was largely unknown until Kirchner’s discovery.

The revelation of an entire colony, a surprise even for Kirchner, provides an unprecedented opportunity to document every life stage of this elusive ant species. The findings, presented in the paper titled “Colony structure and redescription of males in the rarely collected arboreal ant, Aphaenogaster mariae Forel (Hymenoptera: Formicidae),” published in the Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington, shed light on the colony’s structure and offer the first documented collections and photographs of the males of this species.

Kirchner notes that the queens of these ants possess a relatively small size compared to other ant queens, a characteristic shared with parasitic ant queens. This feature aids in their ability to infiltrate colonies, as their diminutive stature makes them more easily mistaken for fellow worker ants.

The scarcity of encounters with this species makes drawing definitive conclusions about its rarity challenging. Elsa Youngsteadt, a co-author of the study and a professor of applied ecology at NC State, emphasizes that Kirchner’s observations suggest localized populations, yet further research is needed to fully comprehend the ecological significance of these ants in the Triangle’s forests.

Kirchner’s rediscovery adds a valuable piece to the puzzle of North Carolina’s biodiversity, where approximately 250 ant species have been identified. It underscores the importance of diverse surveying efforts and highlights the ongoing potential for new discoveries, even in well-explored areas like the Neuse River game lands.

Source: North Carolina State University

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