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LOGAN, Utah (AP) -- A Utah State University entomologist James Pitts has learned a lot about evolution from southern Utah's velvet ants.
An assistant professor of biology at Utah State University, Pitts' study of the ants has uncovered new evidence that glaciers were responsible for isolating groups of velvet ants and lead to the formation of distinct new species.
Scientists typically attribute the evolution of one species into two or more new distinct species to the uplift of mountain ranges that separate populations, but Pitts said his work found that one-third of the velvet ant species developed during the Ice Age. Taking place from 2 million to as little as 10,000 years ago, the process is much more recent than the time periods when the Rocky Mountains and the Colorado Plateau arose.
"You might especially expect this of plants and animals in the desert, where the terrain is typically isolated by mountain ranges," Pitts said. "But for some organisms, species variation appears to have happened much more recently and the evidence points to glaciations that occurred during the Ice Age."
The ants are actually wasps that pack a powerful sting. "Female velvet ants lack wings so they resemble ants," Pitts explained. "The 'velvet' part of their name comes from the dense, velvety hair that covers their bodies."
For the study, Pitts gathered velvet ants from an area near St. George. Using molecular data collected from current-day specimens and morphological data collected from fossils, Pitts and his students applied mathematical algorithms to assign probable dates of origin to each branch of the insect's known family tree.
The information, coupled with the fossil data, helped determine when various species emerged.
Pitts, a USU professor since 2005, published his findings in the July issue of the journal "Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution."
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