A new ant species discovered from the southern foothills of Pir Panjal Himalayas in Rajouri district, Jammu and Kashmir is named after Dr. Himender Bharti from Punjabi University, Patiala. He has so far discovered 77 new ant species from India, and four new species from Southeast Asia. He has been working on ants for about 20 years and has developed an ant repository.
It was supposed to be work as usual when a manuscript describing a new ant species discovered from the southern foothills of Pir Panjal Himalayas in Rajouri district, Jammu and Kashmir was sent to him for peer-reviewing prior to publication. But what came as a pleasant surprise to Dr. Himender Bharti from the Ant Systematics and Molecular Biology Lab in the Department of Zoology and Environmental Sciences, Punjabi University, Patiala, was the name given to the new ant species — Leptogenys bhartii.
“This species is named in honour of Dr. Himender Bharti for his outstanding contribution to the Indian ants,” is how Dr. Shahid Ali Akbar from Central Institute of Temperate Horticulture, Srinagar and senior author of the paper published in the Biodiversity Data Journal described the reason for choosing the name for the 11-12 mm long ant that he and his team discovered.
“They never told me anything, not even when they met me during a conference recently. But when they submitted the manuscript it came to me for reviewing. I was pleasantly surprised to see the ant species named after me but I told the editor that it would unethical on my part to review it,” recalls Dr. Bharti.
Dr. Bharti and his students have so far discovered 77 new ant species from India, of which 22 are from the Western Ghats. In addition, he has discovered five new species from Southeast Asia — Vietnam, Malaysia and China.
This is the second instance in recent past where a new species has been named after a scientist. In December last year, Prof. Mewa Singh, a conservation biologist from Mysore University had a frog discovered from Western Ghats named after him. “The species is named after Prof. Mewa Singh… in honour of his extraordinary contributions in behavioural ecology and primatology, and his immense contribution to the conservation of Indian primates” is how the etymology section of the paper published in Journal of Threatened Taxa reads.
“A great, down-to-earth scientist, he’s been actively involved in projecting Indian ant work globally. He is very well recognised internationally,” says Prof. Amitabh Joshi an Evolutionary Biologist from Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), Bengaluru who knows Dr. Bharti quite closely.
Ant repository at Punjabi University
“He has been working on ants for about 20 years and has developed an ant repository — Punjabi University Ant Collection — where holotypes of all the new species he and his students described and reference collection of over 1000 ant species from India and other countries are kept,” says Dr. Akbar. In addition, the repository also has 20 paratypes (specimens other than holotypes) of ant species described from other parts of the world that have been donated by the original discoverers for objective identification of new species.
Most of the holotype specimens of ants discovered long ago are located in museums outside India and this makes it difficult to ascertain if a species discovered is indeed new. Making reference collection available in India greatly helps researchers to compare and determine if a species is new.
In 2016, he published a comprehensive checklist that describes the number of ant species present in each State in India. The list also provides information about areas that have hardly been sampled and where there is a greater likelihood of finding more ant species.
What attracted young Dr. Bharti to study ants was that they are the best subjects for studying evolutionary biology. “They have a major role in ecology and serve as indicator species of the ecosystem,” he says. “They have a huge influence on the functioning of the ecosystem as their biomass is mostly higher than other organisms in the tropical ecosystem.” They also have a well defined caste system (male, queen and worker ants), chemical communication and a social structure where each ant carries out different and specific tasks for the betterment of the colony.
Majority (over 50 species) of new ant species discovered are from the Himalayas, with more than 90% being endemic to the mountain range. With the formation of the Himalayas, some of the ant lineages which were Palaearctic (region comprising Eurasia north of the Himalayas, together with North Africa and the temperate part of the Arabian Peninsula) were isolated and later got adapted to high altitude, leading to high endemicity. Most of the 22 ant species he discovered from the Western Ghats too are endemic and have close affinity to ants from Sri Lanka and Madagascar.
Discovery of two parasitic ant species
Besides discovering one of the primitive ant species that lack eyes and have peg-like teeth, Dr. Bharti and his team have discovered two of the five parasitic ant species reported from India. The parasitic ant species enter the nests of allied species and sometimes do not produce workers and remain as parasites of the host. These ants don’t waste their energy on collecting resources instead capitalise on the resources of the host and produce only males and queen for propagation.
“Two species won’t generally tolerate each other. But in these two species we have seen the highest degree of parasitic characteristics where all boundaries have been broken and parasites are tolerated. And these parasitic species point towards sympatric mode of speciation [though populations of a species share the same habitat they become reproductively isolated from each other],” he says.
As a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) group for the conservation of Asian ants, he has been working to develop criteria to categorise ant as endangered, threatened or vulnerable. “The IUCN criteria for redlisting is inapplicable for invertebrates, so we are try to address this,” says Dr. Bharti.