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Colony of rarely seen ants collected for first time in North Carolina trees

A close up frontal view of an Aphaenogaster mariae worker ant. It is a reddish brown, with two black eyes, and an antenna on each side of the head.
Matt Bertone
/
N.C. State University
A frontal view of an Aphaenogaster mariae worker ant. This ant species had rarely been documented, but N.C. State student Michelle Kirchner collected a colony of the ants from trees in Wake County.

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.

A full-body view of a worker of the reddish brown ant species. Thin lines radiate outward from where its abdomen attaches to the rest of its body, which is a pattern unique to this ant species.
Matt Bertone
/
N.C. State University
This Aphaenogaster mariae worker ant has thin lines radiating outward from where its abdomen attaches to the rest of its body. The pattern of these lines is unique to this ant species.

“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.”

Progression of Aphaenogaster mariae from early-developed larva to late-developed pupa. The larva in early development looks like a small, curved white blob. In late development, it's a slightly bigger blob, now an orangish brown. The pupa in early development is white, with the general shape of an ant in a fetus-like position. In late development, the pupa has become a darker orangish brown color.
Matt Bertone
/
N.C. State University
Progression of Aphaenogaster mariae from larva early in development (bottom right) to pupa late in development (top left). Since juveniles never leave a colony, this is the first time scientists have been able to document these stages.

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.”

A side view of a male Aphaenogaster mariae ant. It is a darker brown color, with light brown wings.
Matt Bertone
/
N.C. State University
A male Aphaenogaster mariae. According to Kirchner, there were only records for two male specimen of this species. Kirchner was unable to locate those specimen, so the collection of a colony provides an opportunity to redescribe the male characteristics.

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.”

Sophie Mallinson is a daily news intern with WUNC for summer 2023. She is a recent graduate from UNC-Chapel Hill, where she studied journalism. Sophie is from Greenville, N.C., but she enjoys the new experiences of the Triangle area. During her time as a Tar Heel, Sophie was a reporter and producer for Carolina Connection, UNC-Chapel Hill’s radio program. She currently is heavily involved in science education at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center.