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Newly Identified Ant Is Named After Missouri S&T Biologist

Syscia sumnichti, a newly identified species of ant, was named in recognition of Missouri S&T biologist Theo Sumnicht.
J. Longino
University of Utah
Syscia sumnichti, a newly identified species of ant, was named in recognition of Missouri S&T biologist Theo Sumnicht.

ROLLA — Syscia sumnichti, an ant no bigger than a grain of rice that lives in the mountains of Guatemala, Honduras and Nicarauga has been named after a biologist who now resides and works closer to the Ozark Hills.

Theo Sumnicht is the caretaker and outreach teacher at Missouri University of Science and Technology’s Ozark Field Station.

Last month, researchers from the University of Utah and the U.S. Department of Agriculture published a paper in the Entomological Society of America journal Insect Systematics and Diversity that described, and named, 30 new species of ant, including syscia sumnichti.

It all started in 2009 when Sumnicht was on an undergraduate research trip to Central America to collect samples of ants. It was believed that there were three varieties of this kind of ant.

“From all the collecting that had happened in Central America, it looked like there was a whole lot more diversity — possibly 30 species,” Sumnicht said. “So I set about looking at little differences.”

His effort continued through his Ph.D work, and the analysis was completed recently.

The ant is so rare that no living samples have been found. The ant lives in the soil of high mountain slopes, is nomadic and lives in small colonies.

Sumnicht is humble about the naming. He said that since there are tens of thousands of species of ants that are not yet named, it’s not that rare to have one named after a research biologist.

“I’m not really sure I would add it as a line on my resume. I would say it’s more of a personal honor,” Sumnicht said.

Sumnicht, who started at Missouri S&T in 2019, is currently focused on taking care of the campus’ field station and relaunching outreach and education programs to schools in the region after the coronavirus pandemic.

But he'd like to resume his research by studying Ozark ants — “by looking at local ant fauna, and seeing what kinds of patterns of species distribution in the area, just getting to know who’s here,” Sumnicht said.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

Jonathan Ahl is the Newscast Editor and Rolla correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.