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Scientists complete ant-thology

Antbase.org is a collaborative effort between scientists from around the world. antbase.org

If you struggle to identify a fire ant from a carpenter ant, help is at hand with the first complete database of the world's 11,000 known ant species.

This content was published on March 8, 2002 - 09:48
Vincent Landon, swissinfo.ch

Scientists say antbase.org provides access to a wide range of information from distribution data to original descriptions, images and, where available, gene sequence.

"Ants are very important ecologically," said Swiss scientist, Donat Agosti, who has played a major role in the list's compilation. "In an Amazon rain forest, ants make up about 15 per cent of the total weight of animal life."

Information on ants is scattered across thousands of publications including many obscure journals. Agosti said it was important to link all the material since ant populations provide vital information about the environmental health of ecosystems.

Double the number

Agosti, a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History, now living in Cairo, says his aim over the next ten to 15 years is to describe all the world's ants, which are probably far more numerous than the 11,000 known species.

"We expect to double the number," Agosti told swissinfo. "When a colleague published the first account of ants in the Arabian peninsula, there were only 50 ants known. Later, he got to about 100 and a few years ago we added up 256 ants in total."

Born in Switzerland, Agosti studied at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and has worked in London and New York. During the course of his career, he has described 95 new species including the oldest ant - a fossilised specimen dating back 92 million years.

"The study of ants is fascinating" said Agosti. "Whenever I go to the desert, I am struck by what they do and how they survive. I mean how can they live. There are a few nests then 50 kilometres nothing then you find some other nests. It's almost a bit mystical how they operate."

Collaborators on antbase.org include the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Ohio State University and Japan's Ant Image Database.

Switzerland boasts more than 130 known species of ant.

by Vincent Landon

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