Friday, September 25, 2015

An Oklahoma discovery

I’ve spent this summer studying South American ants, trying to figure out which species live where across the Guiana Shield.  But we can do the same thing closer to home.  For the past two years I’ve helped teach a General Entomology class where we teach students to do much the same type of work—collect specimens, identify them, and create a museum collection—right here in Oklahoma.

With a subtropical climate (in the southern part of the state at least) and a diverse mixture of eastern and western ecosystems, there’s a ton of insect diversity to be found.  And despite years of Entomology classes going to the same field sites year after year, every semester the students find something new and exciting.  Sometimes they even find something publishable.

Last year on a field trip to the OU Biological Station near the Texas border, a student brought me a lone worker of an ant species I didn’t recognize.  It turned out it was from a mostly tropical genus that had never before been recorded in Oklahoma.  A week later I brought two of my fellow grad students—Karl and Diane Roeder—to the same place and they found some of its nests.

Karl instantly recognized it as Leptogenys elongata—a specialist predator of isopods that is common in Central and South Texas but unknown this far north.  He soon realized that not only was it a new species for Oklahoma, but the genus as a whole had never been reported this far north anywhere in the New World!  Some Asian species range a bit farther north, but as far as the Americas are concerned this was the new record.

During a class field trip we found the predatory ant Leptogenys elongata living in Oklahoma, farther north in the Americas than any other species in the genus.  The specimen shown here is from much farther south near the Gulf Coast (photo by Michele Esposito, AntWeb).

Karl wrote up the results with all of us as co-authors, and the paper just came out yesterday in Southwestern Entomologist!  You can read it here for free.

It’s a reminder for students that our class (or any class) is about more than a grade.  And it emphasizes just how much there is left to discover, anywhere and anytime.