Rare ant species from Kakamega Forest named after former US President Barack Obama

Rare ant species from Kakamega Forest named after former US President Barack Obama

Biologists at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) have named three new, rare ant species in Africa after important figures in African biodiversity conservation—a former United States president, a writer-activist, and a world-renowned scientist. Using new scanning technology for documenting species, the OIST researchers compiled scans of the ants to create 3D avatars, giving them, and their namesakes, a measure of immortality.

The first ant species, Zasphinctus obamai, was discovered in the Kakamega Forest National Park, Kenya, located near Mr. Barack Obama’s ancestral family village.

The OIST researchers chose to honor Mr. Obama for his prodigious contributions to global biodiversity conservation.

The second species, Zasphinctus sarowiwai, was named after Ken Saro-Wiwa, a Nigerian writer and environmental activist who, after campaigning against irresponsible oil development, was executed in 1995.

The third, Zasphinctus wilsoni, was named after biologist Edward O. Wilson, who is famous for his contributions to sociobiology, ant biology, evolution, and biodiversity conservation.

Through his foundation, Wilson has contributed to the resurgence of Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, which is one of Africa’s most successful wildlife restoration stories.

To create the 3D avatars, “we used X-ray microtomography, or micro-CT, which is comparable to when you go to the doctor and get a CT scan but at much higher resolution, to scan very small insects,” explains Dr. Francisco Hita Garcia, first author on the study and a member of the Biodiversity and Biocomplexity Unit at OIST.

"We saw things that nobody ever looked at."

Dr. Hita Garcia

Through those new observations, the research team was able to confirm details about the ants’ lifestyles. Other species of Zasphinctus from outside Africa are known to be predators of other ants, and the mouthparts, musculature, and skin-thickness data from the OIST researchers’ study all provide evidence that the African Zasphinctus ants are top predators as well. “Normally when you describe a new species, you don’t know much about its biology,” Dr. Hita Garcia explains, but with the 3D reconstructions researchers can discover details right away.

Another advantage of 3D models is that they can be easily accessed from anywhere. Especially for specimens that are rare, examining them requires a lot of time and money to coordinate—such as an expensive plane ticket to visit a museum in Nairobi. This is not the case with the 3D models. “If someone wants to see the Obama ant, they can download it, look at it, and 3D print it,” Dr. Hita Garcia explains.

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