For more than 30 years, U entomologist Jack Longino has been watching the ground. Whether he’s deep in a tropical jungle or scanning the sidewalks of a Central American city, Longino is always looking for ants. “Ants rule!” he says.
Recently, Longino compiled those decades of work into a detailed written study—called a monograph—of 234 species of the ant genus Pheidole. He’s given names to 57 of those species himself. He usually names them after physical characteristics, where they were found, or even in honor of colleagues and loved ones. Longino formatted the monograph to emulate a bird guide, hoping to engage more ant fans in the work of documenting and conserving ant species.
“You can think of what I do as making a map of diversity,” Longino says. “The first step in understanding and using animals and plants is having a map of what we’ve got. I’ve dedicated my career to filling in the map.”
Thanks to a $1.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation, Longino and colleagues will be able to fill in the map with even more detail. They are working on a project to obtain genetic information from 4,500 species of ants around the world to construct a comprehensive evolutionary tree of life for Longino’s favorite insect family.
And his discoveries don’t always require him to book an international flight. In fact, last August, Longino caught a glimpse of four ants in his garden that looked out of place. He dug deeper, and a close look in the lab revealed that it was a distinct new species. He says he hopes his new discoveries inspire people to “don headlamps and hand lenses and head out into the backyard on warm summer nights.”