Under Extinction Pressure: Rare Australian bee found after 100 years

A widespread field search for a rare Australian native bee (Pharohylaeus lactiferus) that had not been recorded for almost a century found the species has been there all along – but is probably under increasing pressure to survive. Prior to this study, only six individuals had been found, with the last published record of this Australian endemic bee species, from 1923 in Queensland.

Male Pharohylaeus lactiferus bee. Photo by James Dorey.

A widespread field search for a rare Australian native bee (Pharohylaeus lactiferus) that had not been recorded for almost a century found the species has been there all along – but is probably under increasing pressure to survive. Prior to this study, only six individuals had been found, with the last published record of this Australian endemic bee species, from 1923 in Queensland.

“This is concerning because it is the only Australian species in the Pharohylaeus genus and nothing was known of its biology,”

Flinders University researcher and biological sciences PhD candidate James Dorey says in the new scientific paper in the peer-reviewed, open-access Journal of Hymenoptera Research.

The ‘hunt’ began after bee experts Olivia Davies and Dr Tobias Smith raised the possibility of the species’ extinction based on the lack of any recent sightings. The ‘rediscovery’ followed an extensive sampling of 225 general and 20 targeted sampling sites across New South Wales and Queensland.

Along with extra bee and vegetation recordings from the Atlas of Living Australia, which lists 500 bee species in New South Wales and 657 in Queensland, the Flinders researchers sought to assess the latest levels of true diversity, warning that habitat loss and fragmentation of Australia’s rainforests, along with wildfires and climate change, are likely to put extinction pressure on this and other invertebrate species.  

“Three populations of P. lactiferous were found by sampling bees visiting their favoured plant species along much of the Australian east coast, suggesting population isolation,”

Mr Dorey reports.

Highly fragmented habitat and potential host specialisation might explain the rarity of P. lactiferus.

Additionally, the scientists remind of previous findings that Australia has already cleared more than 40% of its forests and woodlands since European colonisation, leaving much of the remainder fragmented and degraded.

“My geographical analyses used to explore habitat destruction in the Wet Tropics and Central Mackay Coast bioregions indicate susceptibility of Queensland rainforests and P. lactiferus populations to bushfires, particularly in the context of a fragmented landscape,”

Mr Dorey says.

The study also warns the species is even more vulnerable as they appear to favour specific floral specimens and were only found near tropical or sub-tropical rainforest – a single vegetation type.

“Collections indicate possible floral and habitat specialisation with specimens only visiting firewheel trees (Stenocarpus sinuatu), and Illawarra flame trees (Brachychiton acerifolius), to the exclusion of other available floral resources.”

Known populations of P. lactiferus remain rare and susceptible to habitat destruction (e.g. caused by changed land use or events such as fires), the paper concludes.

“Future research should aim to increase our understanding of the biology, ecology and population genetics of P. lactiferus.”

Female Pharohylaeus lactiferus bee. Photo by James Dorey.

“If we are to understand and protect these wonderful Australian species, we really need to increase biomonitoring and conservation efforts, along with funding for the museum curation and digitisation of their collections and other initiatives,”  

Mr Dorey says.

Research paper:

Dorey JB (2021) Missing for almost 100 years: the rare and potentially threatened bee, Pharohylaeus lactiferus (Hymenoptera, Colletidae). Journal of Hymenoptera Research 81: 165-180. https://doi.org/10.3897/jhr.81.59365

***

Follow Journal of Hymenoptera Research on Twitter and Facebook.

3D avatars for three new rare ant species from Africa including the Obama ant

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.

https://skfb.ly/6sPvr

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.

Furthermore, the 3D models also allow for the data to be easily accessible from anywhere. To show this, the scientists have uploaded the reconstructions to the open access Dryad Digital Repository.

“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

###

Reference:

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

In the belly of the Devil: New rare ant species found in the stomach of a poison frog

While new ant species are usually discovered in surveys involving researchers searching through leaf litter, it turns out that sifting through the stomach contents of insect-eating frogs might prove no less effective, especially when it comes to rare species. Such is the case of a new species of rarely collected long-toothed ant, discovered in the belly of a Little Devil poison frog in Ecuador.

The international team of Drs Christian Rabeling and Jeffrey Sosa-Calvo, both affiliated with University of Rochester, USA, Lauren A. O’Connell, Harvard University, USA, Luis A. Coloma, Fundación Otonga and Universidad Regional Amazónica Ikiam, Ecuador, and Fernando Fernández, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, have their study published in the open access journal ZooKeys.

The new ant species, named Lenomyrmex hoelldobleri after renowned myrmecologist Bert Hölldobler on the occasion of his 80th birthday, was described based on a single individual – a female worker, recovered from a Little Devil poison frog. It is the seventh known species in this rarely collected Neotropical genus.  

Similarly to its relatives within the group, this ant amazes with its slender and elongate mouthpart, yet it is larger than all of them. The remarkable jaws speak of specialised predatory habits, however, so far, nothing is known about these ants’ feeding behavior.in-full-face

The amphibian, whose diet majorly consists of ants, was collected from the Ecuadorian region Choco, which, unfortunately, despite being one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world with exceptionally high levels of endemism, is also one of Earth’s most threatened areas.

In conclusion, the authors point out that “studying vertebrate stomach contents is not only a way of studying the trophic ecology” (meaning the feeding relationships between organisms), “but also an interesting source of cryptic and new arthropod species, including ants.”

Furthermore, the scientists note that nowadays there is no need to kill a frog, in order to study its stomach. “Stomach flushing methods have been developed and successfully applied in numerous studies, which avoids killing individuals.”

 

Original source:

Rabeling C, Sosa-Calvo J, O’Connell LA, Coloma LA, Fernández F (2016) Lenomyrmex hoelldobleri: a new ant species discovered in the stomach of the dendrobatid poison frog, Oophaga sylvatica (Funkhouser). ZooKeys 618: 79-95. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.618.9692