University of Texas at Austin

Saturday, September 20, 2008

An ancient ant

Christian Rabeling was facing the deadline for finishing the fieldwork for his master’s thesis.

As part of his work, Rabeling mapped entrances to ant nests in a Brazilian rain forest. And to find an entrance, you follow an ant. The ants he was studying weren’t helping.

“A. they’re small and B. they’re slow,” he said.

Breathe on a leaf near an ant and it will freeze in its tracks. It takes a while for them to get going again. “It requires a lot of patience,” Rabeling said.

One evening, as he was packing up vials, forceps and other tools, he happened to see a “funny looking ant” among the leaf litter.

The ant was pale, had no eyes and large mandibles.

He picked it up with forceps and put it in a vial and went home for the night.

He forgot about it until a few days later, as he was doing laundry and found the vial in a pocket.

Rabeling e-mailed it to his adviser Manfred Verhaagh. “Hey, I found this ant and I can’t really identify it. Is it possibly the ant that you lost a few years ago? And he immediately wrote back and said, “Yeah, that’s the lost species.”

Verhaagh had come across that ant in 1998, but lost it when the vial he had it in broke and the ethanol leaked out.

It turned out, the ant was a newly discovered genus. Rabeling, along with Verhaagh and Jeremy Brown, another UT student, published a paper about it in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. News organizations around the world picked up the story.

Rabeling says his discovery will help biologists better understand the biodiversity and evolution of ants, which are abundant and ecologically important insects.

Rabeling had to finish his master’s degree project before he could tackle the new ant.

“Now we are planning a new trip and we have so much encouragement from colleagues and requests so we’re excited to make another trip down there,” he said.

They’ll do more than look for more ants.

“To go there only for this ant is kind of a wild goose chase because you may find one and you may not,” he says.

He and his colleagues plan compare ants that are active in the daytime to those active at night.

Rabeling named the ant, Martialis heureka, which, very roughly translated, means, ” I found an ant from Mars!”

Rabeling wants to make sure how the ant was named is well understood. Some accounts have not depicted it quite right. It was, Rabeling says, something of a tribute to the encyclopedic knowledge of ants possessed by Stefan Cover, the assistant curator of the ant collection at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.

When Rabeling and Cover showed the ant to noted biologist E.O. Wilson, he said, “If Stefan cannot identify the ant, I suppose it must be from Mars.”

“It was a joke toying with Stefan’s incredible knowledge about ant species,” Rabeling says.

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