Colony of rarely seen ants collected for first time in North Carolina trees
A rarely-seen ant species was found high up in the trees of the Triangle. A few unfamiliar ants crawling along a dead tree branch led North Carolina State University Ph.D student Michelle Kirchner to make a big discovery.
It was August 2021, and Kirchner was about 55 feet up in a Wake County oak tree. She cracked open the branch, and a nest of the rarely recorded ant species Aphaenogaster mariae was in the deadwood.
“I just panicked, threw it all in a Ziploc bag, and tossed it down to my assistant, who was on the ground beneath me,” said Kirchner, who is studying entomology and biology at N.C. State. “I was like, ‘Triple bag that, we're taking it back to the lab!’”
It's the first time a colony of the rarely-seen ant has ever been collected since its discovery more than 100 years ago.
“The way we know that this ant is actually Aphaenogaster mariae is it has very distinctive markings on its abdomen,” Kirchner said. “It's got lines that radiate out from where the abdomen attaches to the rest of the body, that radiate out in a very specific pattern. It's very unique. No other species have that same pattern, especially not around here.”
Kirchner said researchers can now document every stage of this ant's life cycle, as well as the appearance of the males. And, based on the size of queens in the nests, researchers can further explore the possibility of whether such a species may be parasitic, infiltrating the nests of other ant species to have those workers raise their young.
She said there's still much to learn about this ant's role in the ecosystem, but the discovery can help provide insight into if the species is actually rare, or just rarely found.
“It could be that they're not actually that rare, and they just live high up in the canopy,” Kirchner said. “When people are collecting ants, you're normally looking down towards the ground. So, maybe they're actually very common, but there aren't a lot of people looking up there. Or it could be that they are actually kind of rare in that they have small populations, or they're very localized in where they occur.”
Of the approximately 14 sites where Kirchner has ventured for arboreal ants in the greater Triangle region, the site at Butner-Falls of Neuse Game Lands is the only one where she has found nests for this ant species.
She said that just goes to show how much of the Triangle's ecology has yet to be uncovered.
“Almost everything we know about insects in the forest canopy, especially ants, comes from tropical forests,” Kirchner said. “So, I think this fun little find kind of points to how much we still don't know about even woods that are literally in our backyard. Then, on top of that, we're in the Piedmont. Things are expanding. We might be changing some of this forest ecology before we even know that it exists.”
Kirchner said that as a woman in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), it feels special to effectively rediscover this ant species, following in the footsteps of naturalist Mary Treat, the ant’s namesake.
Kirchner’s peer-reviewed paper was published in the journal “Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington.”