Three new, rare ant species recently discovered in Africa were named after important figures for the African biodiversity conservation – the former United States president Barack Obama, the Nigerian writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, and the world-renowned biologist Edward O. Wilson.
The scientists from the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST), who had their discovery published in the open access journal ZooKeys, used a new, revolutionary method to compile scans of the ants and create 3D avatars allowing for a unique and detailed visualisation of the insects’ insides.
Curiously, the Obama ant, Zasphinctus obamai, was collected from the Kakamega Forest National Park, Kenya, located near Barack Obama’s ancestral family village. The 44th President of the United States of America is famous for his numerous initiatives towards the conservation of fragile natural habitats around the globe.
Ken Saro-Wiwa, who also has his name perpetualised in the new ant species Zasphinctus sarowiwai, was a Nigerian writer and environmental activist who, after campaigning against irresponsible oil development, was executed in 1995.
“By naming a species from threatened rainforest habitats after him, we want to acknowledge his environmental legacy and draw attention to the often-problematic conservation situation in most Afrotropical rainforests,” explain the biologists in their paper.
The third new species, Zasphinctus wilsoni, bares the name of the biologist Edward O. Wilson, whose foundation has contributed greatly to the resurrection of the Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique.
The 3D avatars were created with the help of X-ray microtomography, or micro-CT, which is a technology similar to the one used in hospitals for CT scans, but relying on much higher resolution. The three-dimensional reconstructions made it possible for the scientists to look into details as tiny as the ants’ mouthparts and even their legs and hairs. Moreover, this method does not require damaging the rare specimens.
“We saw things that nobody ever looked at,” says Dr. Hita Garcia, first author on the study and a member of the Biodiversity and Biocomplexity Unit at OIST.
While closely related ants had already been known as predators of other ant species, the scientists needed to study the data provided by the scans to confirm that the new species are top predators as well.
“Normally when you describe a new species, you don’t know much about its biology,” further explains Dr. Hita Garcia, “but with the 3D reconstructions researchers can discover details right away.”
To the biologists, these reconstructions hint at a future of virtual taxonomy with the potential to alleviate issues of time, money, and specimen damage.
“If someone wants to see the Obama ant, they can download it, look at it, and 3D print it,” Dr. Hita Garcia points out.
“Since these ants are from very threatened habitats in Africa, we wanted to pick names that draw attention to the environment, and not just the ants,” he concludes. “The rainforests in equatorial Africa, as well as the savannah in Mozambique, needs to be protected before the habitats and animals living within them are destroyed.”
Find the original public announcement available via the OIST’s website: https://www.oist.jp/news-center/news/2017/8/29/say-hello-3d-obama-ant
Hita Garcia F, Fischer G, Liu C, Audisio TL, Economo EP (2017) Next-generation morphological character discovery and evaluation: an X-ray micro-CT enhanced revision of the ant genus Zasphinctus Wheeler (Hymenoptera, Formicidae, Dorylinae) in the Afrotropics. ZooKeys 693: 33-93. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.693.13012