Researchers discover two new species of the rare ant genus Myrmecina in Mizoram and two new jumping spiders in Maharashtra

Published : July 15, 2021 20:17 IST

Myrmecina bawai. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Myrmecina reticulata. Photo: By Special Arrangement

June was a month for announcing the discovery of new species.

First off the mark was the discovery of two new species belonging to a rare ant genus Myrmecina from the eastern Himalayas by researchers from the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE). The discoveries were made in Mizoram by ATREE’s Senior Fellow Dr Priyadarsanan Dharma Rajan and Aswaj Punnath.

Myrmecina are cryptic ants. As the name suggests, they are hard to find, living their lives mostly underground or under rotting wood and leaf litter in colonies comprising 30 to 150 individuals. Some species are even blind. They are rarely noticed by humans and little is known about them.

The research team had carried out extensive sampling in Mizoram in April 2019 as part of “Bioresource and Sustainable livelihoods in North East India”, a research project supported by the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India.

Mizoram lies in the Indo-Burma hotspot region which is one of the most biologically important regions on Earth. It is also one of the most threatened. The researchers, in a press statement, said they believed they would find “something interesting in the beautiful landscape of Mizoram. That feeling made us explore deep forest regions where there were no signs of anthropogenic disturbances”. They kept pitfall traps for the collection of subterranean ants. They explained: “A large number of ants have a cryptobiotic lifestyle, where they live in hidden habitats such as beneath the leaf litter. These include several species unknown to science. We used the non-conventional collection method, the Winkler extractor, for collecting ant samples from the leaf litter. After coming back from the field, while cleaning and sorting specimens under the microscope we found a small yellow coloured ant, quite different from many common ants. We were pretty sure the ant under our microscope was something interesting. Finally, it turned to be a new species after careful examination of morphological characters.”

Since this is ATREE’s 25th anniversary year, this species was named Myrmecina bawai in honour of Professor Kamaljit S. Bawa, founder-president of ATREE and a renowned evolutionary ecologist and conservation biologist. Their statment said: “Myrmecina bawai is unique from all its congeners in India with its remarkable yellow coloured body with a dark tinge. Two workers of Myrmecina bawai were collected from Phawngpui National Park, often called Blue Mountain National Park. This is the highest mountain peak in Mizoram with a maximum altitude of 2,157 m above sea level. We found Myrmecina bawai in a shaded region at an elevation of 1,619 m above sea level.”

Further describing their adventure of discovery, they wrote: “We were eagerly looking for any other interesting species from the genus, then we found Myrmecina reticulata in the Winkler trap. This new species has a remarkable and unique reticulate sculpture on the gaster (abdomen). This unique sculpture on the gaster made us name the species Myrmecina reticulata. The collection site of Myrmecina reticulata sits in the Dampa Tiger Reserve, Mamit district, at an elevation of 409 m above sea level. Mizoram has rich floral and faunal diversity and it forms a part of the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot region. The discovery of two new species marks the first record of the genus from the State Mizoram. With the present discovery, there are seven known species of Myrmecina in India. When we started this study, 57 species of ants were known from Mizoram. Now we are adding another 20 more species to the ant fauna of Mizoram. Extensive exploration of the Eastern Himalayan region in the future, especially by using non-conventional collection methods, would help us to find more such ants. This study has been published in the latest issue of Zootaxa.”

The other discovery was by the Mumbai-based naturalist Rajesh Sanap and his Gujarat-based colleague Dhruv Prajapati. During their explorations in Maharashtra’s forests, they found two new species of spiders. Naming a new species is the prerogative of those that discover it and Sanap and Prajapati’s choice for one was touchingly surprising. A spider found in the Thane forests was named Icius tukarami. Prajapati tweeted, “Join me to introduce 2 new species of jumping spiders from Maharashtra, India! One species is dedicated to ASI Tukaram Omble, who [caught] terrorist Ajmal Kasab alive and took 23 bullets. Presenting Icius tukarami from Thane.”

Omble was on duty at Mumbai’s Girgaum Chowpatty when the city was on high alert. Ajmal Kasab and another terrorist Ismail Khan were in a stolen car when they were stopped at a nakabandi (roadblock). In the struggle, ASI Omble grabbed the barrel of Kasab’s rifle, giving his colleagues enough tome to overpower the terrorists. Omble was hit at point blank range by fire from the assault rifle. He was awarded the Ashoka Chakra posthumously.

The second spider was named Phintella cholkei in memory of a friend named Kamlesh Cholke. This species is found both in Thane and in the tree-covered area of Mumbai’s Aarey milk colony.

Ants and spiders can tell one a lot about the health of ecosystems. Tiny as they are, they feel the minutest change in their surroundings. So, the discovery of a new species is heartening. The spider discoveries are particularly heartening because they prove that these forests in heavily urbanised areas can still host small flagship species.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor