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Ants dethrone birds as top attraction at Eaglenest

- PhD scholar records 200 species in Arunachal wildlife sanctuary famous as a birding site

A Polyrhachis armata ant in Eaglenest wildlife sanctuary. Picture courtesy: Aniruddha Marathe

Guwahati, Feb. 19: Move away birds, ants are the new attraction at Eaglenest wildlife sanctuary.

The first study by Aniruddha Marathe, under way at the wildlife sanctuary, famous as a birding site in Arunachal Pradesh, has now recorded 200 species of ants.

Marathe is doing his PhD from Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE). He is being assisted by Priyadarsanan Dharmarajan.

"The Eaglenest wildlife sanctuary in the western part of Arunachal Pradesh and part of the Eastern Himalaya biodiversity hotspot is a promising area for such research. The sanctuary offers steep elevation gradient, and almost continuous tracts of forest evergreen forests from base to summit. The vegetation changes from evergreen at the lowest elevation towards highest elevation of about 3,000m where rhododendron is found," Marathe told The Telegraph.

He said the large variation in environment indicates that the area can be home to a large number of species. "This presents an opportunity to study how different groups of plants and animals respond to similar changes in the environment. This is the first ecological study of ants at the Eaglenest. We have recorded more than 200 species in the sanctuary."

Marathe said the study on ants was chosen because of diverse ecological roles they play.

"Ants assume multiple roles such as predators, seed dispersers and symbiotic partners of other animals. In a way they are like the Swiss knifes of the insect world. There are a large number of ant species with their own specific requirements. This makes them an ideal system for our study," he said.

He first went to Eaglenest in 2011 on a reconnaissance visit and carried out the actual sampling during 2013 and 2014.

The Pachycondyla Rufonigra is one of the largest ants found at Eaglenest. It is a solitary foraging predatory species and packs a very nasty sting.

He said mountains are fascinating systems and are the miniature laboratories of nature where grand questions of ecology and evolution can be studied.

"The mountain range of the Eastern Himalaya is no different and is undoubtedly one of the last frontiers for biodiversity exploration."

Ants are a social insect from the family Formicidae. They evolved from wasp-like ancestors around 110 to 130 million years ago after the rise of flowering plants.

Of an estimated 22,000 ant species, over 12,500 species have been identified.

"We are at present analysing the data, and we only have preliminary results. Our results indicate a decrease in species richness from low to high elevations. There are close to 90 species at the lowest sampling site while only six species at the Eaglenest wildlife sanctuary ridge at 2,400m. We hope that by finding mechanisms behind the patterns we observe in Eaglenest will lead to interesting insights into ecology of the eastern Himalaya," he added.


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