Wildlife & Biodiversity

‘Treasure map’ of ants may help experts discover new species in India

New map created with machine learning predicts Western Ghats, Himalayas, North East India as hotspots for undiscovered ant species

By Rohini Krishnamurthy
Published: Thursday 04 August 2022
The researchers of the map expect India to have a lot of hidden, small ranged ant species. Photo: Wikimedia Commons _

Several undiscovered ant species are likely hiding in the Western Ghats, the Himalayas and North East India, according to a global ant biodiversity map. 

The map could direct scientists to regions likely to be a treasure trove of ant species awaiting discovery and guide conservation efforts, the map published in Science Advances predicted. The researchers used machine learning to predict areas that may harbour hidden ant diversity if less-surveyed places are investigated.

“We expect that India has a lot of hidden, small ranged ant species compared to other areas in tropical Asia,” Evan Economo, the lead author from Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, told Down To Earth

Small-ranged species are endemic to a limited geographical area. “The reasons many ant species are unknown could be either because they have not been discovered at all or their data has not made its way into centralised databases,” Economo said.

The researchers acknowledged that the map is only a prediction. “We need to go out and test it,” the author said. The map can also provide clues to questions such as how species evolved and are related to each other around the globe. 

Ant biodiversity centres in Asia – areas with many, localised ant species. Red indicates areas that are relatively more studied than other areas, purple shows areas that are important currently and likely to remain so after future sampling. Blue areas depict locations predicted by machine learning to be promising for discovering new localised ant species.

Ant biodiversity centres in Asia. Areas marked in blue are locations predicted by machine learning to be promising for discovering new species. Red areas are relatively more studied and purple are locations considered important. Map: Science Advances

Parts of Maharashtra and West Bengal, where ants are relatively well-surveyed, may drop from the list of top 10 areas important for ant biodiversity.

The relative density of ant species in these places may change when more species are discovered in the Western Ghats, the Himalayas and North East India in the future, the expert explained.

Read more: Invasive alien forest insects will kill 1.4 million urban trees in US by 2050: Study

A previous study had recorded 828 ant species in India. 

But the list is far from comprehensive, according to the researchers. India is a “hyperdiverse” nation for ants and many other types of organisms and is yet to document every species, Economo explained.

Other nations, except well-surveyed places like the United States and Europe, also have the same problem. Economo and his colleagues overcame this problem by using machine learning to predict loactions that may harbour hidden ant diversity .

For species with available data, the researchers used statistical models to predict how species are spread worldwide.

The final map captured current and future hotspots for ant biodiversity, places predicted to host more ant species and places likely to witness a drop in biodiversity importance as more samples are collected.

The study revealed that the increased investigation could reveal more small-ranged species in the Tropical Andes — northern one of the three climate-delineated parts of the Andes. 

Madagascar, eastern and western central and west Africa are also predicted to be hotspots for hidden small-ranged ants, the map showed.

Read more: Himalayan birds at higher risk of losing unique traits: Study

Within eastern Asia and Oceania, the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka, the Himalayas and North East India, Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia may host undiscovered species.

Their analysis showed that only 15 per cent of the top 10 per cent of the regions estimated to host hidden species were in national parks or reserves.

In the future, the researchers call for more funds to support scientists working on identifying and documenting new species, he added.

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