SALT LAKE CITY — It was a warm August evening in 2018 when Jack Longino spotted something unusual in his backyard.
“I noticed right there these four tiny little ants that I knew just did not belong here,” Longino, a global ant expert who has traveled the world documenting and discovering ant species, said Tuesday.
Longino, a biology professor at the University of Utah and an entomologist, said just by looking at these ants, he knew they were the first of their kind in the state.
“The head has a very triangular look to it, where it has a very elongated front and then the jaws kind of continue to be elongated,” he said. They reminded him of species from the tropics or from the deciduous forests of the Eastern U.S.
He originally thought the ants had been introduced to the area and would be some known species from elsewhere. He collected nearly 70 of the ants, brought them back to his lab, studied them and realized they were a new species, almost certainly native to the region, with similarities to species in Arizona.
He also gave them a name.
“I named this new species Strumigenys ananeotes,” Longino said. “Ananeotes, which means newly emerged.”
The ants are relatives of one found in more moist climates, but Longino credited trees planted in the valley with helping the ants survive Utah’s desert climate.
“Perhaps this is a case were native species, instead of being harmed by human intervention, is actually benefiting from creating more of its habitat,” he said.
His work was just published in the Western North American Naturalist.
He hopes his story excites others to get out there and explore.
“Get a flashlight and go look closely and they might find some of these, too,” he said.