Chance Hong Kong sighting leads to big discovery of ant-sized proportions

University researchers discover the ‘golden tree ant’ just metres from campus, marking the 22nd species unique to city

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 August, 2016, 4:56pm
UPDATED : Monday, 01 August, 2016, 10:19pm

Biologists have discovered a new ant species native to Hong Kong believed to have been hiding in nearby trees for years.

The ant was found by University of Hong Kong researchers Benoit Guenard and Ying Luo on an evening excursion in September last year, just a few hundred metres from the campus in Lung Fu Shan Country Park.

The Hong Kong University researchers named the species Paratopula bauhinia, in reference to the bauhinia flower, which is a symbol of Hong Kong.

The common name for the ant has been declared the “golden tree ant”.

The insect has not been found anywhere else in the world and has so far been sighted only in Lung Fu Shan Country Park, making it endemic to Hong Kong.

The unusually large size of the ant, about 7mm long, and its light golden appearance first caught the eye of Luo.

“This ant was particularly special because of its size and golden coloration,” Luo said.

Further inspection revealed that the ant resides in trees and only becomes active at night, which makes it difficult to spot.

Guenard also explained that the close proximity of the newly discovered insect to the city proved that discoveries are not merely limited to rural forests. This latest find marks the 22nd ant species described from the Hong Kong region alone since 1858.

“With probably 80 per cent of life still unknown to science, species’ descriptions are more than ever paramount to the study and protection of biodiversity, including in Hong Kong,” Guenard said.

He believes that this golden tree ant has been living in Hong Kong for years, but was only found recently by chance.

Guenard and Luo published their discovery in the scientific journal Asian Myrmecology this year. So far, the team has found only three ants and plans to send two of them to museums in London and California, while keeping one here.

The last ant species which was found and described in Hong Kong was in 2000.

There are 15,000 ant species in the world, with around 250 to 350 living in Hong Kong. Guenard estimates that there are a dozen or more ant species yet to be found in Hong Kong.

“This ant is just one among many others. There are many others left undiscovered,” he said.