It's a big name revolving around a little creature, but the Ant Protocol is as important as it sounds. Ants, it turns out, play a critical role in nature.
From Leaf Litter to the Winkler
In exacting detail, the Ant Protocol sets forth guidelines for scientists studying the critical insects – from collecting the surface layer of forest floor known as "leaf litter," to sifting its finest contents into a device known as the "Winkler apparatus," and finally to capturing the ants that fall to the bottom for scientific study and identification.
But why such extensive procedures for ants?
"The leaf litter layer doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves," says John Longino, a member of Conservation International's Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring (TEAM) Initiative and lead scientist for the Ant Protocol. "That layer under your feet is just concentrated biodiversity."
Biodiversity Beneath Your Feet
Indeed, the ants that live in this layer and below constitute a huge portion of Earth's biomass and species diversity, consequently playing a critical role in the natural world. The nearly 12,000 known species of ants provide imperative services within their environment, such as loosening the soil and making it friendlier for small sprouting plants.
Ants are also "big recyclers," according to the TEAM Initiative's technical director, Jorge Ahumada, because they use excess natural materials on the ground for nest construction and feeding their young. Beyond that, ants act as indicators of ecological change, such as altered soil properties, seasonality, and climate.
"There are a few ant species that prefer to live in drier and warmer conditions," Ahumada says. "So if we start getting changes in global temperatures, we could see an increase in species that were not there before."
New Species Discovered, Needle In the Haystack Found
Pooling scientists from around the world, the TEAM Initiative quantifies and forecasts changes in biodiversity in tropical forests, in part by identifying ants. The Ant Protocol helps to ensure that various scientists collect data in the same manner, allowing them to come to conclusions more efficiently. If scientists are lucky, they'll find a species in the Winkler they never knew existed. It is a process that Longino compares to finding a needle in the haystack.
Despite the odds, Longino identified one new ant species and rediscovered another in September 2006 at the TEAM Initiative's Volcán Barva site in northern Costa Rica.
"One of them is a very cool looking little ant. It's in this genus called Pyramica and it doesn't look like any one I've ever seen," Longino says, describing the new species whose closest relative is thought to live in southern Brazil. He has given it the temporary code name Pyramica JTL-012 until it is formally described.
Longino also identified a worker of Typhlomyrmex prolatus, a species that was previously only known from a lone queen collected near San Jose, Costa Rica around 1940.
"It's kind of like zooming in," says Ahumada. "Just to find another forest inside the floor that is full and teeming with life, I think, is fascinating."