Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Animal of the Week -- September 15, 2008

Wherever you look in the news this week, one thing is for sure: ants are where it's at.

First off the news that a blind, subterranean species of ant with huge mandibles discovered in the Amazon a couple of years ago represents a whole new ant subfamily, provides unique insights into the origins of ants. Ants arose from wasps, but perhaps all living ants are descended from ancestors that once lived underground permanently. So weird is this ant that it's name, Martialis heureka, suggests that it might have come from the planet Mars (Martialis). The huereka presumably harking back to the Archimedean cry of scientific enlightenment. Taxonomists are crazy!

By contrast, this week's actual animal of the week is an example of totally uninspired taxonomy: Formica rufibarbis. Now, you may well think that this is a cocktail of downers mixed on a 1970s composite plastic worksurface, but it's actually the red (rufi) barbed (barbis) ant (Formica -- the most familiar ant genus). The naming of this ant is totally lazy, it is indeed, a bit red and what's more it has little barbs on its back... and it's an ant. Taxonomists are, most of the time, boring! But for all that laziness, there is currently a great effort to save this ant from extinction in the UK.

Although widely distributed, the red-barbed ant is never common within it's range from Portugal to Siberia, and in the UK, its highly picky living requirements mean that it can only be found on St Martin's in the Scilly Isles (and why not, that's nice enough) and Chobham in Surrey -- presumably moved there for the schools. However, the mainland population has declined so much that only one colony remained, and due to a reproductive quirk of the species that only produced females. Now the Zoological Society of London and partners are reintroducing captive bred nests, some of males, some of females, onto heathland in Surrey.

The ants have fared poorly in the UK due to habitat destruction. To ease the tranisition for the captive bred ants great effort has gone, not only to preparing suitable habitat for them, but into trying to remove one of their main enemies in the natural world -- Formica sanguinea. This latter ant steels larvae from other colonies and raises them (ahhhhh, that sounds alright -- sort of like Madonna or Angelina Jolie) but then makes the matured ants do all their work for them! As the red barbed ants are released on Chobham downs on Monday, I wish them all the success in the world and salute the work of the tireless souls who work to ensure their continued presence on this sceptered isle.

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