Utah’s ant man found a new species in his backyard

University of Utah professor Jack Longino’s research mainly takes him to Central America, but on the weekend he collects and examines the diverse ant species around him.

Jack Longino likes to spend his weekends close to the ground. He often wears a vest that holds fifteen tiny vials filled with alcohol and a backpack with about 100 more.

“People look at me and they think I’ve got a bullet belt,” he said.

Longino uses the vials to carefully collect and preserve ants. “I end up with thousands of tiny little bottles of alcohol with dead ants in them,” he said.

He has traveled and documented ants extensively in Central America, but Longino is “interested in ant diversity anywhere I am.”

Luckily, ants are just about everywhere and each zone — from the marshes of the Great Salt Lake to high elevation Alta to the West Desert — has its own set of species.

In 2018 Longino was hanging out in the backyard of his Salt Lake City home when he noticed an unusual group of ants normally found in tropical habitats. Very few of that particular species were recorded in the Western U.S. At first he assumed they had come from Southern Arizona, perhaps hitched a ride on potting soil.

Longino collected a few of the ants and brought them back to his lab at the University of Utah, where he is a professor at the School of Biological Sciences.

When he put the ants under the microscope, “it was pretty clear that this was a new species from around here, that evolved here,” Longino said. “It was totally unexpected, it was a real surprise.”

Since living in Utah, “I’ve enjoyed just getting to know what are the local players? What do they do? What do they look like? Where do they live?” Longino said.

Much of Longino’s research focuses on establishing a baseline understanding of how ants are distributed at elevations and how specialized they are to certain habitats.

“A lot of my work is kind of motivated by climate change issues,” Longino said. It’s still too early to completely understand how the warming earth is impacting ant populations, but there is some anecdotal evidence of low-elevation species moving further up.

Longino has dedicated his life to studying ants and becoming one of the leading experts because “there is an ecological dominance, there is an abundance and importance in ecosystems.”

Plus, “everybody knows what ants are and are curious about them.”

The ant-curious can hear Longino speak at the Tracy Aviary’s Exploring Nature Speaker Series on Wednesday from 1 to 2 p.m. He will discuss his research and ant-anatomy.