21 Nov 2013

OIST Student’s Return to China Leads to New Discovery

A multinational project in the Biodiversity and Biodiversity Unit has led to the finding of not only one of the world’s rarest ant genus, but also the discovery of a new ant species. 

In the Unit’s field collection trip to Xishuangbanna, China in June 2013, more than 22,000 specimens were collected. This expedition was led by French postdoctoral researcher Benoit Guénard. Guénard was assisted by Cong Liu, an OIST graduate student from China, and Benjamin Blanchard, who was an American undergraduate research intern at OIST at the time.

Among the collections from the expedition were two small workers of an extremely rare genus called Bannapone, discovered for the first time 15 years ago from a single queen. The new specimens not only represent the first known workers for the genus, but were also distinct enough from the previously known species to be described as a new species. “When I first looked at the specimen, I realized straight away that this was something very unusual,” said Guénard. “We quickly identified it as Bannapone, a genus that had not been spotted after its initial discovery. Finding it was exceptional. The discovery of the new species Bannapone scrobiceps might not have happened were it not for Cong’s facilitation and the cooperation of the people in Xishuangbanna.”

Liu’s presence in the Unit as part of his lab rotation in the OIST Ph.D. program was influential in deciding to go to Xishuangbanna. Liu conducted research in Xishuangbanna on Fig Wasps while pursuing his Master’s degree, and suggested sampling at Xishuangbanna to Prof. Economo, who had been searching for sites in Asia where diverse species could be collected in order to get material for genetic projects on ant evolution. When in Xishuangbanna, Liu’s previous experience in this region and the assistance of his acquaintances were indispensable in choosing sampling sites and navigating through the field.

The “scientific life” of the newly discovered specimens of Bannapone scrobiceps does not end here. The Biodiversity and Biocomplexity Unit have sent one of the specimens to colleagues in the USA, who are reconstructing the evolutionary relationships of the subfamily that the genus Bannapone belongs to. The specimen is very valuable because they represent the only available specimen for the genus for DNA extraction, and should bring some new insight on this highly enigmatic genus.

Currently, Liu is carefully identifying each of the remaining specimens. Already the team has recorded many species that were not known to be in China, and other undescribed species have been detected.

By Anna Ikarashi


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