Thirteen new ant species discovered in Hong Kong
"If you believe that all life surrounding you in Hong Kong has been discovered, then you'll realise that you just need to look a bit closer… not for big things, but for ants and other insects walking at your feet, to find a plethora of new creatures," said Dr Benoit Guénard from the School of Biological Sciences. In two separate articles recently published in Zookeys and Asian Myrmecology, Dr Guénard and his team expanded the knowledge on Hong Kong ants by adding 13 species to the 174 species officially recorded. Among those are three new species of the genus "Strumigenys", also known as miniature trap-jaw ants, new to Science and thus far known only from Hong Kong. As their name indicates, these species are tiny, measuring only 2 to 4mm long but are astounding predators of the small arthropods living in the forest leaf-litter. They can open their mandibles widely and snap their prey with the fast-closing movement of their mandibles. The new species described by a recent HKU graduate student Wilfred Kit Lam Tang, and the researchers Mr Mac Pierce and Dr Benoit Guénard, are named Strumigenys hirsuta, in reference to its hairy appearance; Strumigenys lantaui, as this extremely rare species is known only from a single locality on Lantau Island; and Strumigenys nathistorisoc, in honour of the Hong Kong Natural History Society who funded this research through the Name an Ant Program (https://benoitguenard.wordpress.com/name-an-ant/) which invites donors to support scientific research on biodiversity in exchange for having a species named after them. Profile (top), dorsal (bottom left) and head (bottom right) views of Strumigenys hirsuta, one of the three new ant species described from Hong Kong for the first time. Profile (top left), antennal (top right), dorsal (bottom left) and head (bottom right) views of Strumigenys lantaui, one of the three new ant species described from Hong Kong for the first time. Profile (top left), mandibular (top right), dorsal (bottom left) and head (bottom right) views of Strumigenys nathistorisoc, one of the three new ant species described from Hong Kong for the first time. Ken Bradley, Chairman of the Hong Kong Natural History Society (www.hknhs.org) said that the Society readily supports Dr Guénard's research which is line with the Society's objective of "encouraging the study of Natural History in general and in particular in Hong Kong". "There are still many species in Hong Kong to be discovered and the support and involvement from the community in this endeavour is absolutely fundamental," said Dr. Guénard. Dr Benoit Guénard and Ken Bradley, Chairman of the Hong Kong Natural History Society. New ant species Strumigenys nathistorisoc is named in honour of the Society which funded this research Another five species of Strumigenys are newly recorded from Hong Kong but had already been described from other Asian regions. One of them, Strumigenys formosa, was known only from Taiwan where only two queens had been collected since its discovery in 1988. For the first time, the worker caste is thus described from a single specimen collected in Tai Po Kau Nature Reserve; enhancing our knowledge on this species' distribution and its importance for conservation. Other species recorded were previously known from South East Asia, Japan, Taiwan or other provinces of China. Finding these new, and for some of them rare species, is a good thing for Hong Kong and its biodiversity, but other discoveries are more worrisome. Head (left), profile (middle) and dorsal (right) views of four new exotic ant species detected in Hong Kong; (A-C) Strumigenys hexamera, (D-F) S. membranifera, (G-I) S. nepalensis, and (J-L) S. rogeri. Indeed, five of the species newly recorded are non-native to Hong Kong, four belonging to the Strumigenys genus, and one, Brachymyrmex patagonicus, here recorded for the first time from mainland Asia. This latter is an urban pest well-known for its ability to enter and establish nests within a wide range of buildings, like hospitals, hotels, schools, and houses, and colonise various rooms such as kitchens, offices, and laundry rooms, but also more sensitive areas such as infirmary and neonatal units. In some American states, where it is also introduced, it has become the species causing the most frequent intervention from pest control companies. If the population in Hong Kong, currently known only from Hung Hom, was to proliferate, it would most likely induce an increase in pest management costs; and more harmful for the environment and populations, a more frequent use of pesticides. The discovery of five more exotic species in Hong Kong, like the fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) in the early 2000's, highlights the regional importance of Hong Kong in importing species, some with important consequences for human populations and local biodiversity. It also indicates the need to deploy efficient survey and monitoring programmes to quickly detect these species after their arrival so targeted actions to suppress them or limit their spread through Hong Kong and beyond can be activated. Monitoring Hong Kong insects can thus reveal both beautiful and alarming discoveries. With probably several hundreds, if not thousands of species waiting to be found, it shows the fantastic diversity that the city still has to offer if protected sufficiently. In parallel, it also represents an important step for uncovering more alarming species, in particular exotic ones for which early detection represents a key requirement to ensure success in the limitation of their spread and negative impacts. Links of journals: Tang K.L., M.P. Pierce, & B. Guénard (2019). Review of the genus Strumigenys (Hymenoptera, Formicidae, Myrmicinae) in Hong Kong with the description of three new species and the addition of five native and four introduced species records. Zookeys 831, 1-48. https://zookeys.pensoft.net/article/31515/ Guénard B. (2019) First record of the emerging global pest Brachymyrmex patagonicus Mayr 1868 (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) from continental Asia. Asian Myrmecology 10: e010011. (link)
Science Teachers Received the HKU Excellence Awards 2018
Congratulations to our teachers for their being honored at the HKU Excellence Awards Presentation Ceremony 2018. The Faculty is very proud of their achievements and would like to join the university to pay tribute to the outstanding work of our exceptional teachers and researchers. Outstanding Teaching Award 2017-18 Professor Alice S T WONG, School of Biological Sciences more Outstanding Researcher Award 2017-18 Professor Xuechen LI, Department of Chemistry more Outstanding Young Researcher Award 2017-18 Dr Benjamin R KANE, Department of Mathematics more
Ancient birds out of the egg running
The ~125 million-year-old Early Cretaceous fossil beds of Los Hoyas, Spain have long been known for producing thousands of petrified fish and reptiles (Fig 1.). However, one special fossil stands unique and is one of the rarest of fossils — a nearly complete skeleton of a hatchling bird. Using their own laser imaging technology, Dr Michael Pittman from the Department of Earth Sciences and Thomas G Kaye from the Foundation for Scientific Advancement in the USA determined the lifestyle of this ~3cm long hatchling bird by revealing the previously unknown feathering preserved in the fossil specimen (Fig. 2). Chickens and ducks are up and about within hours of hatching, they are “precocial” (Fig. 3). Pigeons and eagles are “altricial”, they stay in the nest and are looked after by their parents. How do you tell if a hatchling came “out of the egg running” or was “naked and helpless in the nest”? Feathers. When precocial birds hatch they have developed down feathers and partly developed large feathers and can keep warm and get around without mum’s help. “Previous studies searched for but failed to find any hints of feathers on the Los Hoyas hatchling. This meant that its original lifestyle was a mystery,” says Dr Pittman. Michael Pittman and Thomas Kaye brought new technology to the study of Los Hoyas fossils in the form of a high power laser. This made very small chemical differences in the fossils become visible by fluorescing them different colours, revealing previously unseen anatomical details. They recently had tremendous success with the first discovered fossil feather which they disassociated from the famous early bird Archaeopteryx by recovering the chemical signature of its fossil quill, a key part of the feather’s identification that had been previously unverified for ~150 years. The new results on the hatchling bird finally answered the question about its lifestyle as it did indeed have feathers at birth (Figs. 2, 4) and was thus precocial and out of the egg running. The feathers were made of carbon which has low fluorescence using Laser-Stimulated Fluorescence (LSF), but the background matrix did glow making the feathers stand out in dramatic dark silhouette (Fig. 2). “Previous attempts using UV lights and synchrotron beams failed to detect the feathers, underscoring that the laser technology stands alone as a new tool in palaeontology” added Tom Kaye, the study’s lead author. This discovery via new technology demonstrates that some early birds adopted a precocial breeding strategy just like modern birds. Thus, in the time of the dinosaurs, some enantiornithine bird babies had the means to avoid the dangers of Mesozoic life perhaps by following their parents or moving around themselves. “One of the feathers discovered was of a substantial size and preserves features seen in other hatchlings. It indicates that our hatchling had reasonably well-developed flight feathers at the time of birth”, says Jesús Marugán-Lobón, a co-author from the Universidad Autónoma of Madrid, Spain (Figs. 2B, 4). This and other “illuminating” discoveries are adding to our knowledge of ancient life with details surviving in the fossil record that were never thought possible even a couple decades ago. The paper: ‘Fully fledged enantiornithine hatchling revealed by Laser-Stimulated Fluorescence supports precocial nesting behavior’ by T. Kaye, M. Pittman, J. Marugán-Lobón , H. Martín Abad , J. Sanz & A. Buscalioni in Scientific Reports. Link to journal article Figure 1. Las Hoyas, Spain is known for spectacular fossils preserved in 126+ million-year-old rocks deposited in a lake environment. Image Credit: HKU MOOC / HKU Vertebrate Palaeontology Laboratory. Figure 2. Feathers revealed in a ~125 million-year-old fossil of a bird hatchling shows it came “out of the egg running”. Specimen MPCM-LH-26189 from Los Hoyas, Spain is preserved between two slabs of rock: (a) ‘counter’ slab under normal light (b) Laser-Stimulated Fluorescence (LSF) image combining the results from both rock slabs. This reveals brown patches around the specimen that include clumps of elongate feathers associated with the neck and wings and a single long vaned feather associated with the left wing. (c) Normal light image of the main slab. Scale is 5mm. Image Credit: Kaye et al. 2019 Figure 3. Chickens are up and about within hours of hatching, they are “precocial’ birds that were already known in the age of dinosaurs. Image licensed from Shutterstock.com Figure 4. A bird hatchling leaving its nest shortly after birth ~125 million years ago. This baby bird lived in a lake environment and may have been born on the ground like some other extinct enantiornithine birds. Image Credit: Julius T Csotonyi / HKU Vertebrate Palaeontology Laboratory.