A team of scientists conducting a recent biodiversity survey in the ancient church forests of Ethiopia made an unexpected discovery — a rather infamous ant species (Lepisiota canescens) displaying signs of supercolony formation. According to D. Magdalena Sorger, a post-doctoral researcher with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and a key member of the team, the discovery is significant for two reasons.
In Ethiopia, forests frequently surround Orthodox churches, some of which are more than 1,500 years old. These forests range in size from only a few hectares to more than 400 (~1,000 acres) and can be considered relict oases within largely barren land and agricultural fields. While L. canescens is native to the general region, it is now moving in large numbers into disturbed habitat like some of the more degraded church forests, but also beyond forest boundaries, into neighboring agricultural fields, and along recently constructed roads and other urban structures.
Supercolonies are colonies that extend beyond just a single nest and can sometimes cover many thousands of miles. The strongest basis for describing a large colony as a supercolony is its capacity to expand its range without constraints. In this study, the scientists found several supercolonies of L. canescens, the largest one spanning 38 km (24 miles).
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewhido Church has a unique cultural tradition of preserving small patches of indigenous Afromontane forests, called “Debr” (or “church forests”), that can cover tens or even hundreds of hectares around church buildings.
Overall, Sorger believes Ethiopian church forests might be ground zero for a new dominant ant species with high global invasion potential, and the data her and colleagues are collecting on this species could become critical in the case of an invasion. “It is good to have a record of what this species does in its native habitat,” Sorger says. “Rarely do we know anything about the biology of a species before it becomes invasive.”
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The paper, “Outnumbered: A new dominant ant species with genetically diverse supercolonies in Ethiopia (Hymenoptera: Formicidae: Formicinae: Lepisiota),” is published in the journal Insectes Sociaux. The paper was co-authored by Warren Booth, Alemayehu Wassie Eshete, Meg Lowman and Mark Moffett.