Researchers from the University of Michigan and their colleagues compared genetic sequences from hundreds of species of Pheidole, a genus of ants with mysteriously high diversity.

Professor L. Lacey Knowles, Evan Economo (a former Michigan Fellow and assistant professor in the U-M Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology), and Pavel Klimov, a research scientist, used these sequences to construct a Pheidole evolutionary tree that suggests Pheidole evolved the same way twice, to take over the New World and then the Old World.

About one tenth of the world’s ants are close relatives; they all belong to just one genus out of 323, called Pheidole. “If you go into any tropical forest and take a stroll, you will step on one of these ants,” said Economo, currently a professor at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University.

Pheidole fill niches in ecosystems ranging from rainforests to deserts. Yet until now, researchers have never had a global perspective of how the many species of Pheidole evolved and spread across the Earth. Researchers compared gene sequences from 300 species of Pheidole from around the world. All sequences were created in the Knowles lab. They used these sequences to construct a tree that shows when and where each species evolved into new species.  At the same time, in a parallel effort, they scoured the academic literature, museums around the world, and large databases to aggregate data on where all 1,200 or so Pheidole species live on Earth, creating a range map for each species. Their results were published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society Series B.

Mostly excerpted from a press release by Poncie Rutsch, Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology

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