This is the story of Fa Roil-Lop a Malaysian Grad Student at the Myrmecology Research Labs of Brisbane University and one of the most remarkable zoological discoveries of modern times. Though it's unlikely that you have heard of it, Ctenocephaides Hymenopterae is the most numerous animal in the world. It's common name might make things a little clearer, Ctenocephaides Hymenopterae is also known as 'The Ant Flea'.
To understand exactly how this creature is remarkable you have to understand a little about it's discovery.
In 1997 Dr Roil-Lop was finishing off his graduate thesis on "The Haplodiploid Sex-determinant factors in Myrmecia Pilosula ( The Australian Jack Jumper Ant )" when he noticed some rather erratic behaviour among his test subjects. After introducing a wild caught specimen into a colony of 20th generation laboratory bred ants, Roil-Lop observed a marked change in behaviour. As the newcomer passed through the colony, the other Ants became highly excited, they twitched and spasmed , writhing as if in pain. Though the apparent carrier of the 'infection' remained calm and displayed no symptoms. Roil-Lop's supervisor, Professor Angus Maynard,initially attributed the outbreak to the spread of a fungal pathogen, though the infection rate was many times what would be expected from fungal spores. Roil-Lop was curious and over the coming months conducted a number of autopsies on the affected Myrmecia.
His initial studies revealed nothing out of the ordinary, no fungal spores, so Roil-Lop decided to do something unorthodox. Using free time in the early hours of the morning, Roil-Lop and his team started analysing their samples using the University Physics Departments Low-Voltage Electron Microscope (LVEM), producing images of the ants bodies at unparalleled resolution for the time. At that scale the source of the irritation became immediately apparent. As the researchers studied the scans at below the >1 µm range, numerous tiny organisms became visible. It was initially difficult to see enough detail to make an accurate identification, so the sample was flown to the MIT-CMSE Electron Microscopy Shared Experimental Facility in Boston, where the higher powered equipment would allow more accurate scans. From these images the identification of Ctenocephaides Hymenopterae the 'Ant Flea' was made. That Ants could be the victims of parisitism was not in itself surprising, they are frequently prey to Nematode worms and fungae, but the scale of the parasite in question is remarkable. The Ant Flea is not only the smallest insect ever discovered it is the smallest animal ever discovered! If you can imagine a normal ant (Pachycondyla verenae) then the Ant Flea is in proportion to it, as the common rat flea (Nosopsyllus fasciatus) is to the average human being. Each Ants body was shown to be carrying in the region of 700 unique parasites!
Now this is where the story gets quite alarming, Roil-Lop and Maynard theorized that as nobody had thought to look for this creature before, it could be a lot more common than might be expected. Their findings surprised even them. Not only was Ctenocephaides Hymenopterae widespread on a wide range of insect life, it was also found on mammals and reptiles. So far the Ant Flea has been found on all the continents of the world ( except Antarctica ) and to have a fruitful and untroubled parasitic relationship with almost every form of terrestrial life on Earth, from African Elephants right down to Fleas themselves. Mathematical modelling suggests that the combined biomass of this species alone could outweigh that of all mammilian life on Earth!
Needless to say Fa Roil-Lop's thesis was greeted with an extraordinary amount of interest in the world of Zoology and in the scientific community at large. The paper "Studies on the growth and lifecycle of Ctenocephaides Hymenopterae" A.M.Maynard , F. Roil-Lop , G. Dickenson & U.R.A Suquer was presented in 2002 and was subsequently published in Nature ( Volume 471 Number 7340 pp547-672, March 2002)
Professors Roil-Lop and Maynard will be presenting their work to the Royal Society of London on April 1st of this year. You would be a fool to miss it.