NUS researchers find six new species of ant

NUS researchers have found six new species of ant, one of which was named R. murphyi after Professor Dennis H. Murphy, an eminent former NUS professor who first discovered it.

The ant genus Rhopalomastix is one of the more poorly understood ants in Asia. First identified in 1900, it has a unique habit of nesting in tree bark, and is only the second ant genus known to live with armoured scale insects inside their nests, relying on them for food. 

To unravel the mysteries surrounding Rhopalomastix, a collaborative team of researchers from the NUS Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) and the Natural History Museum of the Thai National Science Museum (THNHM), examined specimens from various museums, alongside the Seiki Yamane reference collection in Japan. 

The team used modern DNA barcoding and morphological techniques to revise the knowledge of Rhopalomastix in Southeast Asia, which prior to the study only consisted of the species R. janeti and the two subspecies of R. rothneyi.

The researchers examined 184 Rhopalomastix specimens, of which 116 came from Singapore across 18 nest series. They discovered six species of Rhopalomastix in Singapore, four of which were totally new to science, and the two subspecies of R. rothneyi were raised to species status. The results were published in the journal Zootaxa on 19 December 2018. 

Dr Wendy Wang, Curator of Entomological Collections at the LKCNHM and the lead author of the study, said, “It is striking that so many species of this rather obscure genus can be found in Singapore, a small country of severely limited land area. The existence of multiple species in Singapore alone implies a strong possibility of many more species of Rhopalomastix awaiting discovery across Southeast Asia.” 

The species pictured is R. murphyi – named after Professor Dennis H. Murphy, who lectured in the then University of Malaya (now NUS) for 31 years from 1960. Prof ‘Paddy’ Murphy was almost legendary in his avid and persistent collecting of insects and other animal fauna, amassing a tremendous collection over the time he spent at NUS.  

In the early 1990s, Prof Murphy, along with Professor Seiki Yamane from Kagoshima University, found and collected the earliest recorded specimens of R. murphyi from the bark of an unknown tree. This species was thus named after Murphy in acknowledgement of him being the first to discover these obscure ants.