Itching to discover new species

A collage of photographs taken by civil servant and amateur ant scientist Mark Wong. To capture these shots of ants, he put his iPhone on the eyepiece of a microscope. Based on past records, there are an estimated 169 to 175 species of ants in Singap
A collage of photographs taken by civil servant and amateur ant scientist Mark Wong. To capture these shots of ants, he put his iPhone on the eyepiece of a microscope. Based on past records, there are an estimated 169 to 175 species of ants in Singapore.PHOTO: MARK WONG

Singaporean finds a different group of ants while doing a pet project on diversity

They may be less than 2mm long, but what they lack in size, they make up for in dexterity and ferocity.

Some ants from the genus Leptanilla are known to prey on centipedes up to 50 times larger than them.

They attack in groups, immobilising the centipede with multiple stings, before transporting their larvae to feed on the carcass. The larvae attach themselves to the centipede and suck the life out of it.

However, compared to other ant species that live above ground, little else is known about this elusive type of ants as they live and forage underground and are tiny.

However, an aspiring Singaporean ant researcher recently discovered - in the Central Catchment Nature Reserve - a species of ants from this genus that is new to science.

The species, Leptanilla hypodracos, was described by civil servant Mark Wong, 25, in a paper published in science journal ZooKeys last month. "In Latin, hypo means under, which reflects its underground habitat, and dracos means dragon, coined after its appearance and predatory nature," said Mr Wong, who said he finds ants, and the variety of species and unique behaviours "incredibly fascinating".

The Leptanilla hypodracos is slender and pale, almost golden.

It was found in July last year, in an underground trap that Mr Wong laid near MacRitchie Reservoir.

Out of the thousands of ants caught in the vial-like trap, there were only three ants of this species, said Mr Wong. "Leptanilla ants are rarely collected because they are restricted to soil in less disturbed habitats, are so tiny, and have small colonies of about a hundred individuals, as compared to the thousands in other species," said Mr Wong, who has a degree in forest science from the Australian National University.

Assistant Professor Benoit Guenard from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Hong Kong, with whom Mr Wong worked to identify the Leptanilla hypodracos, said the group of ants it belongs to is probably one of the oldest among all ants. "This does not mean that this particular species is very old, but that its ancestors, which shared some similar features, had been surviving for millions of years," said Prof Guenard.

Mr Wong discovered Leptanilla hypodracos while on a mission to determine the ant diversity of Singapore as part of a pet project. The ants may be tiny, but play a mammoth role in forest health, he pointed out. "Ants are vital to many ecosystems, but few people know about them and they have been poorly studied, especially locally, compared to other animals, such as mammals and birds.

"In the forests, ants aerate the soil when they dig tunnels underground. They also take in nutrients when they take food back to their nests, and are important seed dispersers."

Dr Wendy Wang, a post-doctoral research fellow who studies ants at the Evolutionary Biology Lab at the National University of Singapore, said that, based on past records, there are an estimated 169 to 175 species of ants in Singapore.

"Mark's discovery is just scraping the tip of the iceberg  comprising hundreds of new species of ants that could potentially be discovered in Singapore. It is just that nobody has done a really comprehensive and large-scale sampling and identification of Singapore's ants.

"There are definitely more waiting to be discovered and described," said Dr Wang, who did her PhD on ant biodiversity in natural forests and oil palm.

Prof Guenard said knowing the diversity and roles of ants in Singapore is important in understanding ecosystems and how to protect them. "How can we protect what we don't know? Considering the current biodiversity crisis due to human activities, we should ensure that we can discover as many species as possible before they go extinct," said the entomologist.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 26, 2016, with the headline 'Itching to discover new species'. Print Edition | Subscribe