Researcher discovers new ant species, calls for gov’t support on biodiversity studies

Leong Chi Man

young local researcher has discovered a rare ant genus Leptanilla in Ilha Verde, which represents the second record for this genus in Southern China.

Leong Chi Man, a master student at Taiwan National University, discovered the rare ant early last year and has named it Leptanilla macauensis, representing the locality where the specimens have been collected.

Speaking to the Times, Leong said that it was a surprise to see a rare ant genus within an island of vegetation surrounded by a dense population.

Leong, along with two researchers issued the study “Lost in the city: discovery of the rare ant genus Leptanilla (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) in Macau with description of Leptanilla macauensis sp. nov,” their second publication released this year.

The name Leptanilla macauensis has been approved by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature.

As cited in the study, the newly-found creature is described based on worker ants of the species recently collected using a Winkler extractor in a highly urbanized site in Ilha Verde.

“It can be distinguished from other Asian species by a combination of character conditions, particularly found in the structure of the clypeus and subpetiolar process,” it read.

The unique characteristic of the species is a large hook in the mouth, an element that the Leptanilla species do not acquire.

“When I saw this ant, it was very shiny. Leptanilla is very hard to collect. There are no more than five record papers in Chinese and [only] a few in the world,” said Leong.

The researcher, who developed an interest for insect studies when previously doing his internship in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, further explained that he collected specimens from the region’s three islands and concluded that Coloane had the most number of endangered species.

“Ants can serve as a bio indicator and tell us which forest is the healthiest. We found that there are several species of ants in Coloane,” said the researcher.

According to Leong, he is the third local researcher who had the interest in discovering species of ants in the region. The last study was conducted in 1997.

“Having a local researcher is important for local biodiversity research. If there are no studies in this field, we need to rely on other experts coming to Macau for a limited time,” said Leong.

“This is not good for us because every region needs to have their own research to further study biodiversity,” he continued.

Leptanilla macauensis was collected with a Winkler extractor from the upper layer of soil consisting of fine sand, soil and leaf litter.

Within the same sample a geophilomorph centipede and two ant species (Pheidole megacephala, and Tapinoma indicum) were also collected.

Leong suspects that more insect species could still be found in the region but lamented that this kind of research is not supported by local institutions.

“In Macau, we found many invasive ants and we need to monitor them, but nobody is doing that. This is a serious problem, nobody cares about these species,” said the researcher.

“We need to monitor these species for the protection of biodiversity in Macau and research,” he added.

Leong hoped that the region could support similar studies and open a museum for these species to be observed, and also to raise residents’ awareness on the city’s biodiversity.

The researcher noted that public education on biodiversity is lacking, adding that there is not enough funding to support young scientists to conduct similar studies.

“I hope in the future I can cooperate with the government to [seek funding for] biodiversity research,” said Leong.

Leong added that there are scattered fire ants in construction sites, particularly in Taipa and said that the issue is not getting enough attention.

“If this particular ant stings adults or children, they may die. The construction site is even close to the sidewalks,” he noted.

Meanwhile co-author, co- researcher and mentor of Leong, Dr Benoit Guénard, assistant professor at The University of Hong Kong’s School of Biological Sciences further explained that they expect more species of ants to be found in Hong Kong as further studies will be conducted.

“As the majority of the groups of insects and in other arthropods (e.g. spiders) have not been studied in Macau, one can easily expect that several hundred (or thousands) of species to be found in Macau,” he said in a reply to the Times.

The professor stressed that future collection of this species in Macau or elsewhere will facilitate the study of its ecology and its conservation status – as it is not possible to protect a species that is not described.

“Even modest contribution like the one in our study is important to fill this important gap at a time in which biodiversity is threatened by habitat changes and invasive species [introduced] by human activities.”

Dr Guénard also said that their first publication has shown that Macau is accumulating numerous exotic and invasive species, several known to have detrimental impacts on native biodiversity.

“It is thus important to determine what is the status of the local diversity in order to establish a baseline for future work and efficient of conservation planning currently or which will be developed in the future.”

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