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New Guinea Ants

Milan Janda

The world’s largest tropical island, New Guinea ranks among the most highly forested tropical land areas on the planet and supports a high proportion of global biodiversity of between 4 and9%. Lying 4 degrees south of the Equator, the island as well as its associated archipelagos and hundreds of smaller islands are considered a part of the Australian tectonic plate. The southern part of New Guinea was connected to Australia until the last glacial period ended about 10,000 years ago, while the northern part is a result of fusion of many smaller terrains of various origins. The fragmented and insular nature of New Guinea and its recent dramatic geological history facilitated a rapid speciation of local flora and fauna, contributing to the high level of endemism. Although covered mainly humid rainforests, the island has a wide range of habitats that include dry savannas, wet marshes, the glaciated summits of the central mountain range and the active volcanoes occur across the island.

Due to the research efforts of several scientists over the last century, the New Guinean ant fauna is known to a considerable extent. To date there almost 800 species (88 genera) have been reported from the island and surrounding archipelagos, of which at least 545 species appear to be endemic. It has been estimated that between 20% and 30% of local ant species are yet undescribed.

The Melanesian ant fauna represents an interesting mixture of Oriental and Australian elements. New Guinea itself has the strongest affinities to Australia, with which it shares the highest proportion of genera and species. the majority of the shared genera (76) occur within tropical Northeast Australia. A relatively high proportion of genera (69) is also shared between New Guinea and the Philippines, but faunal similarity declines towards continental Asia.

The greatest diversity of ants is found in lowland and mid-elevation humid rainforests. Up to 120 ant species living within a single 400 m2 plot of forest understory and leaf litter have been recorded during our studies.

The most species-rich and commonly encountered genera are Camponotus, Crematogaster, Polyrhachis, Pheidole, Strumigenys and Tetramorium. Characteristic elements of Melanesian fauna such as Anonychomyrma, Leptomyrmex, Lordomyrma, Philidris, Podomyrma and Rhytidoponera are locally abundant as well.

Since 2002, New Guinean ants have been studied as a part of research activities of the New Guinea Binatang Research Center, in association with the Biology Center, Czech Academy of Science; the National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution; and the University of Minnesota. Current projects are focused on various aspects of the ecology and evolution of Melanesian ants. More than 15 sites across the eastern part of the island have been surveyed so far. The material is currently being processed and specimens gradually deposited in the National Insect Collection in Port Moresby, PNG, and in other museums. The list published here is based on records from several museum collections, from the literature, and from our own field observations. Several colleagues contributed significantly to the list, notably Gary Alpert, Marek Borowiec, Petr Klimes and Roy Snelling.

Milan Janda
New Guinea Curator (left) with the magistrate
of the Fogomaiu village during a ceremony on
the occasion of the completion of ant surveys
in surrounding forests.

See also: The Ants of New Guinea