We asked our friends at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville to spotlight something fascinating about our state. Raise a glass – not your shoe! – to an insect that deserves some respect.
Ants in Virginia
Ants are pretty much everywhere on Earth, absent only in the coldest and most isolated terrestrial environments. Yet with 14,000 species known to scientists, the number of undiscovered ants is huge: Perhaps only about half of the species on our planet have been named. But what's the story of ants in Virginia?
Land of riches: Virginia is actually one of the richest areas in biodiversity in the United States, thanks to its geographic location, the variety of its topography and the breadth of its ecoregions. Still, only a few groups of invertebrates, including ants, have been surveyed.
Common and rare: At present, 148 ant species are known to inhabit the woodlands, meadows, wetlands, beaches and urban areas of Virginia. Some of them, such as the familiar black carpenter ant (Camponotus pennsylvanicus), are common throughout Virginia. Others are restricted to specific habitats – Nylanderia arenivaga is found in the sand dunes of the Eastern Shore. Yet others (such as the small and secretive Strumigenys memorialis) are extremely rare not only in Virginia but across North America.
A big project: The Ants of Virginia Project was initiated at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in late 2014. Myrmecology is the study of ants, and the project's goal is to bridge the gap between our current knowledge of Virginia's species and the true diversity of state’s myrmecofauna, where discoveries await.
Beyond the list: Detecting species is one thing, but knowing them is an entirely different challenge. Even if we identified all ant species in Virginia, we still would know very little about their biology, behavior and natural history. We usually know these for just a handful of species – the ones that concern our health, economy or homes.
Not just pests: Ants usually are viewed as pests, and yes, a few species are known to cause damage to crops, structures and even human health. But ants are more than a nuisance – they play essential roles in ecosystems. They are crucial to the breakdown of organic matter, nutrient cycling, soil turnover and seed dispersal. Ants also are among the leading predators of invertebrates, and they form symbiotic relationships with plants, arthropods, fungi and microorganisms. And many species display astonishing specializations, such as the cultivation of fungi and cooperative hunting in packs.
For more about Virginia's natural history, visit vmnh.net.