Everything Old Is New Again – Ponerine Taxonomy Returns To Its Roots

Pachycondyla striata, from Brazil, is one of the few names to remain stable after Schmidt & Shattuck fragmented Pachycondyla.

A monumental day for ant taxonomy! The mythical Schmidt & Shattuck ponerine revision, long rumored to be in the works, has emerged from the mists of legend and lore. It’s real! All 242 pages are in Zootaxa:


I don’t wish to speak for the entire myrmecological community, but I think it is safe to say that Chris Schmidt and Steve Shattuck’s ponerine revision has been the most awaited taxonomic paper of the past decade. Ponerine ants comprise one of the greatest subfamilies in terms of abundance and species diversity, particularly in the tropics. Ant people know ponerines. The group is the most purely predatory of the large subfamilies and contains some spectacular insects: trap-jaw ants, matabele ants, various and sundry predators and huntress ants.

Schmidt & Shattuck’s paper is significant for two reasons. First, nearly all ant researchers will be affected by the taxonomic changes. And second, the changes themselves are large, especially for the hundreds of species that used to belong to the sprawling polyphyletic genus Pachycondyla. Under the Schmidt & Shattuck hammer, Pachycondyla in the strict sense remains just a shadow. All but a handful of Neotropical species move to 19 different genera, some new, most revived from older literature. There are about a third more ponerine genera to learn than there were yesterday. That’s a lot to digest.

You might think such large changes would invite controversy, but I anticipate that the new scheme will be widely accepted and largely stable.

1. The work itself is thorough, involving morphology and several different genetic markers. There is good reason this paper was years in the making.
2. Many of the newly valid names are resurrected from the older literature, and as such they already reflect gross morphological groupings as seen by earlier generations of myrmecologists.
3. Ant taxonomists are more uniformly phylogenetic in their outlook than the preceding cohort. The polyphyly of Pachycondyla was not an accident born of ineptitude; rather, it was designed that way by Bill Brown, who was operating under a different philosophy of systematics more popular in the middle of the last century. Since Brown’s school has faded from prominence, most biologists are uncomfortable with polyphyly. As Schmidt & Shattuck are dragging ponerine taxonomy back into the comfort zone of most evolutionary biologists, I expect the new scheme will be popular.

In the big picture, Schmidt & Shattuck have put this important group of ants on a stronger taxonomic foundation. In the small picture, we are faced with the mundane realities of re-memorization.

Pachyondyla apicalis? No longer. Get used to Neoponera apicalisPachycondyla stigma? Nope. It’s Pseudoponera stigma. Plus, there’s Brachyponera, PseudoneoponeraMesoponera…

source: Schmidt, CA, Shattuck, SO (2014) The Higher Classification of the Ant Subfamily Ponerinae (Hymenoptera: Formicidae), with a Review of Ponerine Ecology and Behavior. Zootaxa 3817 (1): 001–242.


14 thoughts on “Everything Old Is New Again – Ponerine Taxonomy Returns To Its Roots”

  1. That’s a good question, Josh. This sort of work is done every day over at INHS, and each researcher is different in how they approach it.

    I was in the lab for the molecular portion of this particular project, at UA. It was essentially a three-part study, first involving molecular genetics to create an evolutionary framework for the ponerines (with field collecting of fresh material, and borrowing material when the researchers themselves couldn’t get it themselves), and then sorting the morphology to look for supporting/conflicting traits (mostly from preserved museum collections), and then a literature study to see which existing names applied to their proposed genera, and whether any of the groups required new names.

  2. So what did taxonomy used to be like? I can’t imagine it outside a phylogenetic mindset, but I keep reading that it was different back in the day. If they were using morphological characters, what was the framework that incorporated these characters in their classification schemes?

    1. Jason, I think that concept refers to groupings of species (like subfamily, genus, etc.) that were thought to belong to multiple unrelated lineages but that were left grouped together because of expediency, poor numbers of specimen samples, lack of adequate means of morphological separation and so on.

  3. Alexander Mohn

    Thank you for this. I might actually spend the money to buy this paper. If so, that would be a first for me.
    I’m really interested in the Ponerine ants, and I’d like to see what has happened to some of the species near me.
    Thanks again!

      1. Is it? Looks like only the preview is available for download without entering some sort of username/password. (was going to look up some hypoponera I recently came across in it, but doesn’t look like that’ll be happening)

  4. Brian Taylor - antsofafrica.org

    Not before time but open access would be nice for those of us who depend on personal funds to make their contribution and do not charge their audience.

  5. Очень круто! Очень классно! Я просто в восторге от фотографий!!!

    Подскажите, пожалуйста, какой объектив Вы используете?

    Very cool! I just loved the photos!!!
    Tell me, please, what lens do you use?

  6. Pingback: Two new interesting publications. - Ameisenforum.de

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