Testing the utility of DNA barcoding for the rapid assessment of Formicidae biodiversity in the eThekwini region.
The biodiversity of Durban (eThekwini municipality) in KwaZulu Natal is primarily threatened by urbanization although other factors such as climate change and the spread of invasive species also pose a significant threat. Knowledge of what species exist within the city is important for biodiversity surveillance, detecting invasive taxa and uncovering cryptic species. Conducting a comprehensive biodiversity inventory is a daunting task, especially for hyperdiverse groups such as terrestrial arthropods, where closely related species can often only be separated by subtle morphological characters. This study investigated whether the barcoding marker, Cytochrome Oxidase C Subunit 1 (COI) can be used to efficiently and accurately delineate species of ants (family Formicidae) in comparison to traditional taxonomic approaches. The feasibility of DNA barcoding for assembling biodiversity inventories for urban areas which could be useful in conservation planning was also evaluated. A total of 619 individuals were sequenced from 23 geographic localities within the eThekwini region and surrounding regions. DNA barcoding revealed 80 provisional species/ “barcode clusters” or monophyletic lineages which could represent distinct species, while morphology revealed 51 different morphospecies. Extrapolation measures of species richness indicated that as many as 153 species of ants could occur in the city. Phylogenetic and phylogeographic analyses were performed on co-distributed species belonging to the genera Lepisiota, Camponotus, Pheidole and Pachycondyla to better understand the spatial distribution of genetic variability in the eThekwini region. Nuclear markers 18S rDNA and 28S rDNA were also sequenced and compared for a subsample of individuals from Camponotus and Pachycondyla. There was genetic variation at COI and the nuclear markers for each of the species examined. In order to fully elucidate the population genetic patterns which could be expected in eThekwini and surrounding regions, further sampling across more localities is essential. The use of more nuclear markers could also assist in uncovering these unique patterns of genetic variation in an urban setting. In this study, the utility of COI as a species diagnostic tool in ants was confirmed. The barcoding library constructed showed promise in highlighting reserves that should be preserved and possible cryptic speciation for further investigation.