[This breaking news is a guest contribution by myrmecologist Benoit Guenard]
The story began with a single specimen in October 1948. A local biologist, D. L. Wray, had been collecting insects in Concord, North Carolina—just east of the middle of nowhere. Wray used a method called Berlese sampling, in which soil animals are “encouraged” out of the soil by use of a hot lamp. This encouragement typically sends them into a funerary jar of waiting ethanol.
In one of the samples Wray took from Concord, he found a few individuals of the ant genus Amblyopone. Ants of the genus Ambylopone are common, particularly in shady habitats across much of North America. There were, at the time, known to be two species. One, Amblyopone oregonensis, in northwestern North America and another, Amblyopone pallipes, nearly everywhere else. These ants appear to eat mostly centipedes and live quiet lives as tiger-like predators underground and under leaves and rocks, hidden from casual observations. At least, there were two species until Wray somehow conveyed his specimens to Bill Brown at Harvard University. Brown looked at the specimens and noted that while one looked just like A. pallipes, the other was unusual. It had a rounder head and an odd, extra tooth. On the basis of that one specimen, an individual dead ant, Brown named it as a new species in 1949, Amblyopone trigonignatha.
During the subsequent 61 years, this new ant species was never heard from again. In fact, rumors began to circulate among the myrmecological cognoscenti that perhaps it wasn’t a separate species at all, but just a weird individual. People began to think that even Bill Brown made mistakes. This ant was a thing of Brown’s imagination.
At least that is what everyone thought until last week.
Last week, Alex Wild (my host here) was trawling through my online photos of the ants of NC and he saw something unusual. He saw an ant that looked like the Amblyopone trigonignatha. In looking at my photos of what I had identified as Amblyopone pallipes, he saw individuals that did not look like A. pallipes. They looked like Brown’s rare ant! Alex sent an excited email to me and copied it to Brian Fisher at the Cal. Academy. Brian sent an email back to us both that, after some expletives, concluded that yes it was A. trigonignatha. And so it was discovered that without knowing it, I had collected A. trigonignatha, sort of.
The individuals that I photographed were found behind my apartment in Cary, North Carolina, just ten minutes from downtown Raleigh, North Carolina. I found them on January 6th, 2008. It was a warm day in January, up to seventy degrees during the day and down to forty degrees at night. The ants moved slow enough that I took the time to photograph them in the wild and then, feeling a great warmth and kindness toward these particular, winter-hardy, ants, lowered them gently back under their rocks. And that was that. I did not collect the ants. I did not study them obsessively (as I have been accused have doing with other species in other times). I had not realized that I had found something so unusual. And so it is that I discovered (without quite knowing it) the second and third individuals of the rarest ant in North America and then let them go, to be free. Oops.
So we are calling all collectors, particularly those living in the Piedmont regions of North Carolina, Georgia and South Carolina, to look for more of what is still North America’s rarest ant, but now, very clearly, appears to be real. It at the very least is now clear that it is exists, though that is all that is clear. Why it was so hard to find, why it is different from other species of the same genus, why it seems to be relatively active during the cool months of the year, well those all remain mysteries. As for me, I can tell you that the most time I have spent inside this week, since hearing from Alex and Brian is to write this post. So far, no luck with Amblyopone trigonignatha, but Andrea Lucky and I did find two big colonies (69 and 23 individuals) of the lovely ant Proceratium silaceum, covered in mites (Don’t worry, I collected them).
And so that is it for now, I am going back outside.
–Benoit (with a translation and a few jokes from Rob Dunn)