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The Lie: Evolution


Ant What it Used to Be    

By David F. Coppedge Sept 18, 2008

A new species of subterranean ant discovered in Brazil is so weird, biologists have classified it as the sole representative of a new subfamily.  The alien creature has been whimsically named Martialis heureka: “the ant from Mars.”  An article about it in Nature News said, “It adds a new branch to the ant family tree which split off from the others extremely early in the family’s evolution.”  Trouble is, it doesn’t look anything like a wasp, from which ants supposedly evolved (see picture on National Geographic).

This has thrown ideas of ant evolution into a bit of a quandary.  Christian Rabeling, the discoverer, found that this ant did not fit into the existing taxonomy.  Scientists are calling this a relict species of a sister family they have named Martialis.  The original paper in PNAS says, “On the basis of morphological and phylogenetic evidence we suggest that these specialized subterranean predators are the sole surviving representatives of a highly divergent lineage that arose near the dawn of ant diversification and have persisted in ecologically stable environments like tropical soils over great spans of time.”  (1) That makes it essentially a living fossil.  “Like the duck-billed platypus is to mammals,” explained Nature News, “it’s clearly a cousin to other ants, yet a weird and ancestral version that took its own evolutionary direction early on.”  This must be what the title of the paper means when it says the discovery “sheds light on early ant evolution.

A look inside the paper, though, reveals a few problems with the confident assertions about evolution: A robust phylogeny is indispensable for elucidating the evolutionary origin of ants and for exploring the selective forces that have produced their extraordinary specializations.  Previously published studies, however, led to contradicting views of early ant evolution, in part because of high levels of morphological convergence, the secondary loss of characters, and a lack of informative paleontological data.  As a result, numerous taxa have been proposed as the most basal lineage.

Recent attempts to find a robust phylogeny have now been dealt another challenge with the discovery of M. heureka.  Their phylogenetic tree shows it on its own branch, all by itself.  Another problem is revealed deep in the paper: “Second, the basal ant lineages seem to have originated in a relatively short period, potentially making the unambiguous resolution of their relationships quite difficult and sensitive to methodological error.”  The only suggestion of light being shed on ant evolution by this discovery is that it turns their attention away from the idea ants evolved from wasps.  What they expected, and what they found, were pointing in opposite ways: Our phylogenetic analyses, combined with the inferred biology of M.  heureka, suggest that the most basal extant ant lineages are cryptic, hypogaeic foragers, rather than wasp-like, epigaeic foragers (Fig. 3).  This finding is congruent with recent molecular studies, which previously suggested the Leptanillinae, another subfamily of subterranean predators, to be sister lineage to all extant ants.  This result has puzzled ant systematists for two reasons.  First, Wilson et al.’s classic study of the Mesozoic amber ant Sphecomyrmapostulated that the ancestral ant was a large-eyed, wasp-like, ground forager, creating a strong expectation that the most basal extant ant lineages would also be epigaeic foragers, presumably similar to Sphecomyrma.  Second, the Leptanillinae [blind foragers in Africa] share common morphological and behavioral characteristics with the Amblyoponinae, implying the monophyly of this group.  In contrast, our results and recent molecular systematic studies suggest that blind, subterranean, specialized predators, like Martialis, the Leptanillinae, and some poneroids, evolved early during ant diversification.  We hypothesize, that once these hypogaeic predators adapted to their specialized subterranean environment, their morphology and biology changed little over evolutionary time because their hypogaeic habitat has likely been ecologically stable and provided a refuge from competition with other, more recently evolved, ants.  It is important to note that no definitive statement about the morphology and life history of the ancestral, Mesozoic ant can be derived from our current knowledge about the surviving basalmost ant lineages, because the relative probabilities of evolutionary transitions between epigaeic and hypogaeic habits are uncertain.

They explained that the supposition that ants evolved from wasps relies on ambiguous data subject to alternative hypotheses.  One other problem with their suggestion that ants evolved from wasps is that Martialis would make the ant hypogaeic [underground] foraging evolve three times.  That’s why they are suggesting the basal ant was already a hypogaeic forager.  “The exact nature of the ancestral ant remains uncertain,” though, “given that the propensity for repeated evolution of a hypogaeic lifestyle may be higher than for reevolution of an epigaeic lifestyle.”

In short, no clear light seems to have been shed on ant evolution by this discovery.  It was a complete surprise.  What other surprises lie in store?  “This discovery hints at a wealth of species, possibly of great evolutionary importance, still hidden in the soils of the remaining rainforests.”    Stefan Cover, a curatorial assistant at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, had a more humble view.  In the Nature News article, he said that Martialis “jars us out of going with our familiar conceptions... This is a lesson that we could probably import into studies of other groups.

(1)  Rabeling, Brown and Verhaugh, “Newly discovered sister lineage sheds light on early ant evolution,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, published online before print September 15, 2008, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0806187105. We can suggest some other studies of other groups where evolutionists could import this lesson: how about the Monera, Protista, Fungi, Plantae and Animalia? (the five kingdoms of taxonomy).

The discoverers put their weird little ant in a jar, but maybe the scientists need to be put in one, because Martialis “jars us out of going with our familiar conceptions,” Cover said.  While they’re safely in a jar out of harm’s way (unable to harm us, that is), let’s hunt for more rainforest species with great evolutionary importance.  Jarring evolutionists is fun.  Every new discovery jars them into realizing their neat little schemes are wrong.  They’re like blind hypogaeic foragers, digging around in their own dirt, thinking every new surprise is shedding light on evolution.     That phrase – “Shed[ding] light on evolution” – yields thousands of hits on Google.  We’ve examined dozens of those claims right here.  Can you remember one that has turned up a single photon?  The truth is they are walking in a darkness of their own making.  The light they need to see is the flashing red stop light next to the “Wrong Way” sign they missed back in 1859.