Familiarity, they say, breeds contempt. Or, even if we aren’t actually contemptuous of the familiar, we often simply ignore it. It is not surprising, then—although it should be—that Tapinoma sessile, the odorous house ant of North America, the very same little brown one that is pictured above, and that you may well have swept off your kitchen counter today, remains relatively poorly studied! It is so widespread and common across a variety of habitats in North America, it seems, that entomologists haven’t really bothered to study it all that much since it was first described by Thomas Say, considered a father of American entomology.
So much so, that they even lost track of the original type specimen used to describe the species. How odd is that, for a widespread species not to have its identity securely moored to a type specimen enshrined in a museum somewhere? Almost like a nation’s President not having a birth certificate!
When I accepted the offer of a faculty position in my current department here at CSU-Fresno six years ago, among other items on the startup list of equipment for my laboratory, I had (only half-jokingly) requested an espresso machine to boost my productivity. Hey, it had worked for my last postdoc advisor! But my then department chair, Dr. Fred Schreiber, only got a chuckle out of that one, and we moved on. A couple of years later, Fred called me up one afternoon to ask if I still wanted that espresso machine! A graduate student working in his lab had left one behind while moving on to the next stage of his career, and Fred had no use for it. That Starbucks Barista has since sat on a counter in my lab keeping me caffienated enough to get tenure and keep a research program afloat.
It so happened that, Chris Hamm, that graduate student who is now in the Ph.D. program at Michigan State University, had been studying the common odorous house ant, that same rootless species, for his masters thesis. While collecting specimens in California, he discovered a two-toned (or bicolored) variant that looked similar, yet rather different from the descriptions of T. sessile. So he carefully measured the two different morphs and compared their morphologies to find that they differ consistently (and statistically significantly) across a range of characteristics. So much so, that the bicolored morph must be recognized as a new species of ant!
A brand new species that was being trod underfoot daily in households across California, but had apparently never been looked at all that carefully by any entomologist in a region full of so many biologists! And we fret about losing biodiversity in remote corners of the world.
Chris has honored Fred by naming the new ant after him. Tapinoma schreiberi will forever mark the legacy of the man who has mentored so many in our department (including me as a greenhorn faculty member) over the past 3+ decades. How fitting that the paper was published the very year that Fred has taken early retirement, as of last week.
In the process of searching for the identity of this new ant, Chris also discovered the shaky foundation upon which rested the identity of T. sessile—and has done his bit to correct that injustice as well. He collected a new type specimen, from near the grave of its original discoverer, Thomas Say, to fill that huge hole in its taxonomic origin, even as he was giving it a new cousin! Alex Wild has more on that story at Myrmecos.
Now I find myself looking closely at ants around here, even as I sip my espresso and thank Chris for a good story, and for my morning/afternoon cuppa joe!
Hamm, C. (2010). Multivariate Discrimination and Description of a New Species of Tapinoma from the Western United States
Annals of the Entomological Society of America, 103 (1), 20-29 DOI: 10.1603/008.103.0104