From: Editor, ENN
Published July 30, 2013 08:54 AM

New Ant Species Discovered, Named for Mayan Lords and Demons

A University of Utah biologist has identified 33 new species of predatory ants in Central America and the Caribbean, and named about a third of the tiny but monstrous-looking insects after ancient Mayan lords and demons.

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"These new ant species are the stuff of nightmares" when viewed under a microscope, says entomologist Jack Longino, a professor of biology. "Their faces are broad shields, the eyes reduced to tiny points at the edges and the fierce jaws bristling with sharp teeth."

In a study published online Monday, July 29 in the journal Zootaxa, Longino identified and named 14 new species of the ant genus Eurhopalothrix and distinguished them from 14 other previously known species. The genus name is Greek and refers to the club-shaped hairs on many Eurhopalothrix species.

In another upcoming study accepted for publication in the same journal, Longino identified 19 new ant species from the genus Octostruma and described differences from 15 other previously known species. The genus name means "eight swellings" for the ants' eight-segmented antennas.

"The new species were found mostly in small patches of forest that remain in a largely agricultural landscape, highlighting the importance of forest conservation efforts in Central America," Longino says.

The new ant species are much smaller than the common half-inch-long household ants and live in the rotting wood and dead leaves that litter the forest floors in Central America.

"They are nearly eyeless and crawl around in leaf litter," using primitive compound eyes to detect light but not form images. No one knows how they find their prey, presumed to be soft-bodied insects, spiders, millipedes and centipedes. But the ants are known to coat themselves with a thin layer of clay, believed to serve as camouflage. 

"Ants are everywhere," Longino says. "They are one of the big elements of ecosystems, like birds and trees. They are major movers of stuff. Some act as predators and influence the population sizes of other insects by eating them. They gather a lot of dead insects and eat them, so they are like vultures at a microscale. They move seeds around and have a big impact on what kind of plants grow where. They aerate soil and do a lot of excavation. Having aerated soil is good for plants — it lets oxygen get into the soil and water percolate through it better."

So far, there are about 15,000 known species of ants worldwide, based largely on difference in body structure, and perhaps as many as 30,000. But as geneticists analyze more and more ants, new genetic differences are becoming apparent, and so "there could be 100,000 ant species," Longino said.

Read more at the University of Utah.

Ant image via Shutterstock.

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