Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Ants on mountains

Many Neotropical species whose range is restricted to tropical montane cloud forests (TMCF) are in danger of local or total extinction due to warming and drying as air warmed by climate change ascends these mountains. While the species richness of many arthropod higher taxa declines at high elevations, those species that do reside in TMCF are often highly specialised and endemic, rendering their natural history especially interesting. However, we know little about these TMCF arthropods.

The species of the ant genus Adelomyrmex are good examples for such arthropods and indeed little in known about them. They are small ants mostly found in leaf-litter samples. The genus is believed to have a distribution across the tropics. However, central American cloud forests seem to be the centers of diversity and abundance. One challenge researchers faced was the fact that for most species only workers were found in samples but males or even queens have not been encountered at all. The same is true for actual nests of many species.

A new study shines a little light on these mysterious creatures and this quite literally as the colleagues present the very first video recording of an Adelomyrmex colony in the wild. In addition through using DNA Barcoding they were able to link male samples to known worker finds which is another big step forward in understanding this group. Queens remain yet to be found.

Here is the video with the 'historical' footage:

What I find fascinating is that the video that shows activity at the colony entrance was shot with a small USB Digital Microscope. Dino-Lite microscopes are affordable and versatile microscopes. Certainly not high-end when it comes to optical resolution but enough to produce some very nice footage on a low budget. The prizes range from $99 to $1000 depending on features, magnification and resolution. Pretty cool idea and the perfect present for kids as it provides high tech to explore the living world around them.

A neat little study that shows how new technology can facilitate discovery in biology. These new tools are also enabling everyone - not only the well-funded, high-tech field scientist - to investigate and encounter an hitherto little known natural world:

Ongoing field collections, using multiple collection methodologies, facilitated by technologies only recently widely and affordably available (digital field microscopy and DNA barcoding) enabled us to eliminate some of the mysteries surrounding the reproductive biology of one species of Costa Rican mountain-top Adelomyrmex. We expect that each of these technologies will become increasingly more affordable and thus expect that other inventories of tropical arthropods will standardise the incorporation of such technologies when appropriate or useful. For example, we note that external magnification lenses for cell phone cameras can already be purchased for $50–70 CAD. Democratising access to such tools will help to resolve many other mysteries of reproductive biology and natural history.

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