The above pie chart shows the relative proportions of described species in various groups of organisms. As we can see, most species are invertebrate animals. Things like snails, flatworms, spiders, sponges, and insects.
Now compare that slice of pie to the proportion of GenBank sequences that represent invertebrates:
Yes, that thin blue wedge is all we’ve got. While most mammal species have had at least a gene or two sequenced, the vast majority of non-vertebrate species have yet to meet a pipettor. Entire families of insects haven’t received even a cursory genetic study.
Of course, we make great progress with the efficiency of focusing our efforts on a small number of model organisms. But surely there’s an opportunity cost of putting all our eggs in the mammal basket. What about the rest of life?
Pheidole rugithorax Eguchi 2008 – Vietnam
In today’s Zootaxa, Katsuyuki Eguchi has a taxonomic revision of the northern Vietnamese Pheidole, recognizing six new ant species for a genus that is already the world’s most diverse. The revision also contains several nomeclatural changes and a key to the thirty or so species occurring in the region.
As in most tropical taxonomy this research has a comedic/tragic effect of adding several more species, about which nothing is known, to a catalog already overflowing with equally mysterious species. We don’t know what they eat, how long they live, how large their colonies are, or when or how they mate. Many will meet extinction without ever receiving more than a cursory taxonomic registration. Perhaps Pheidole rugithorax has something to teach us; the odds that anyone will get around to learning it are slim indeed.
Opamyrma hungvuong Yamane et al 2008
It isn’t every day we get a whole new genus. In this week’s Zootaxa, Seiki Yamane, Tuan Vet Bui, and Katsuyuki Eguchi report the discovery of Opamyrma, an amblyoponine ant from central Vietnam. The full article is behind Zootaxa’s subscription barrier, but detailed specimen photos are already up at Antweb.
The ant subfamily Amblyoponinae is an ancient group. They diverged from the other ant lineages prior to the evolution of trophallaxis food-sharing behavior, and have instead adopted an odd and seemingly brutal way of passing food around the colony. Adult ants pierce the skin of the larvae with their jaws and drink the haemolymph. This behavior has lead to the common name “Dracula Ants” for the Amblyoponinae, and it is likely that Opamyrma engages in it as well.
Where the natural history is known, amblyoponine species are predatory. Judging from the stinger, Opamyrma must be too.
source: Yamane et al. 2008. Opamyrma hungvuong, a new genus and species of ant related to Apomyrma (Hymenoptera: Formicidae: Amblyoponinae). Zootaxa 1767: 55-63.
I’ve just received the following notice about an upcoming NOVA show on the life of biologist/myrmecologist E. O. Wilson:
NOVA is excited to partner with organizations that share our passion for scientific discovery as we spread the word about upcoming shows. On Tuesday, May 20, we invite you to join us for a look at the life and work of renowned Harvard entomologist and conservationist E.O. Wilson. From his groundbreaking discoveries about ant culture to his controversial take on the biological basis for human behavior, NOVA presents a sweeping chronicle of Wilson’s extraordinary career. In six decades exploring treasure-troves of biodiversity across the globe, Wilson has discovered more than 300 new species and emerged as an outspoken environmental advocate, fighting to preserve the astonishing diversity of our planet for the next generation of naturalists.
“Lord of the Ants” will premiere Tuesday, May 20 at 8 pm ET/PT on most PBS stations. To check your local listings, please visit: PBS – Nova schedule
You can also learn more about Wilson’s career–and get a close-up look at some of the planet’s wildest ant varieties– here.
We hope you will help us get the word out about “Lord of the Ants” by passing the attached e-card on to friends and colleagues who might want to tune in. Thank you!
Best wishes, NOVA
Pheidole pegasus Sarnat 2008
Eli Sarnat, the reigning expert on the Ants of Fiji, has just published a lovely taxonomic revision of a group of Pheidole that occur on the islands. Pheidole are found in warmer regions worldwide, but Fiji has seen a remarkable radiation of species that share a bizarre set of spines on the mesosoma. Eli sorted through hundreds of these things to determine that the group contains seven species, five of which had not previously been described. Pheidole pegasus is largest and among the most distinct of the group. It was collected only once, from the summit of Mt. Delaikoro.
Source: Sarnat, E.M. 2008. A taxonomic revision of the Pheidole roosevelti-group (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) in Fiji. Zootaxa 1767: 1-36.
Technomyrmex fisheri Bolton 2007
Madagascar, line drawing by Barry Bolton
Last month, British myrmecologist Barry Bolton published the first ever global synthesis of the ant genus Technomyrmex. The tome describes 37 new species, including Technomyrmex fisheri from Madagascar, named after Brian Fisher of Antweb. I’m always keen to try out new taxonomic keys, so I tested Bolton’s out on several unidentified African and Australian species in my collection. As is nearly always the case with Bolton’s meticulous work, the key worked flawlessly. I only wish I had more Technomyrmex to key.
Perhaps the most notable finding of the study, aside from the plethora of new species, is one that might upset the Pest Control folks. Bolton has discovered that the infamous White-Footed Ant, previously thought to be the single species T. albipes, is a complex of similar species, only one of which is T. albipes. In the long run, the knowledge that there are multiple pesty species in the group will better help us determine where they came from and how to control them, but of course in the short term these are the sorts of discoveries that make people hate taxonomists. Changing names makes literature retrieval more difficult, and it’s always tricky to have to remember a new name.
The Technomyrmex causing problems in Florida can no longer be referred to as Technomyrmex albipes. It is now Technomyrmex difficilis. Perhaps appropriately, we can now call this pest the “The Difficult Ant”. In any case, it looks like this in the field.
Source: Taxonomy of the dolichoderine ant genus Technomyrmex Mayr (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) based on the worker cast. Barry Bolton. 2007. 150 pp. Contributions of the American Entomological Institute Volume 35, No. 1.
Idioneurula donegani Huertas & Arias 2007
Huertas, B. and J. J. Arias. 2007. A new butterfly species from the Colombian Andes and a review of the taxonomy of the genera Idioneurula Strand, 1932 and Tamania Pyrcz, 1995 (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae: Satyrinae). Zootaxa 1652: 27-40.
The online journal Zootaxa has hosted the publication of 6723 new animal species since its inception in 2001, averaging over 2.8 new species per day. And that’s just a single journal- there are scores of taxonomy journals out there. Taxonomy is an old science, but it remains on the frontiers of biological discovery.
Mystrium maren Bihn & Verhaagh 2007
Discoveries of new species on our little-known planet continue apace. The two known specimens of the impressively toothy Mystrium maren were collected in 2001 in Indonesia, and Jochen Bihn and Manfred Verhaagh just published a paper in Zootaxa describing this ant and another new species, M.leonie.
Source: J. H. Bihn & M. Verhaagh, 2007. A review of the genus Mystrium (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) in the Indo-Australian region. Zootaxa 1642: 1-12.
*update* Lead author Jochen Bihn writes about the paper on Trophallaxis Blog.