Tree-Top Triumph: Rare Ant Colony Found in North Carolina

Aphaenogaster mariae Forel Worker Ant

In a significant discovery, Michelle Kirchner from North Carolina State University documented an entire colony of the rare Aphaenogaster mariae Forel ants in North Carolina’s Triangle region. This rare species, typically found in tree canopies, was previously little understood, with no records of the male ants. Credit: Matt Bertone

Michelle Kirchner’s discovery of a rare ant colony in North Carolina sheds light on a species previously little understood, prompting further ecological research.

There’s a species of ant that is so rare, that only a handful of records exist from across the entire eastern United States. North Carolina State University researcher Michelle Kirchner not only found these ants in the Triangle region of North Carolina, she is the first to document an entire colony for scientists, taxonomists and ant-thusiasts everywhere.

Unique Habitat and Characteristics

Aphaenogaster mariae Forel are a rare type of spine-wasted ant. Unlike their cousins that nest mostly in the detritus of forest floors, these ants live most of their lives high in tree canopies. This arboreal lifecycle is a fairly common practice for ants in tropical areas, but little was known about the presence or prevalence of arboreal ants in the Triangle, until now.

“I was not expecting to find these ants at all, so I was shocked when I found an entire colony,” says Michelle Kirchner, lead author of a paper on the work and a Ph.D. student in applied ecology and entomology at NC State. “With the whole colony, we’re able to document every life stage of this rare ant species, which is a first for science.”

A Breakthrough in Ant Research

Until now, there were no photographs or documented collections of the males of this species. Likewise, it is unknown how many populations exist, where they are, or what habitats they prefer. However, these new, detailed descriptions of all members of the colony provide some clues.

“The queens of these species are pretty small compared to other ant queens,” says Kirchner. “This small body type is similar to parasitic ant queens since being small makes them more easily mistaken as a fellow worker ant by a colony she is about to infiltrate.”

Around 250 species of ant have been identified in North Carolina, and Kirchner’s rediscovery of this species helps us better understand the unique makeup of North Carolina’s biodiversity.

The Significance and Future Research

“We don’t know how important this species is to the ecology of forests in the Triangle,” says Kirchner. “This different surveying effort has changed what we’re finding and our perspective on what’s possible out there. There are still discoveries to be made, even in the Neuse River game lands.”

“This is a great case of a species that’s so rarely encountered that it’s impossible to draw any conclusions about how rare it actually is or isn’t,” says Elsa Youngsteadt, a professor of applied ecology at NC State and co-author of the study. “Michelle’s observations suggest that these species are fairly localized, but more work needs to be done.”

Reference: “Colony structure and redescription of males in the rarely collected arboreal ant, Aphaenogaster mariae Forel (Hymenoptera: Formicidae)” by Michelle Kirchner, Matthew Bertone, Bonnie B. Blaimer and Elsa Youngsteadt, 16 November 2023, Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington.
DOI: 10.4289/0013-8797.125.1.77

The paper was co-authored by Matthew Bertone of NC State University and Bonnie Blaimer of the Leibniz Institute for Evolution and Biodiversity Science.

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