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New Ant Species Named After Hellish Mayan Demons

Jul 30, 2013 01:50 PM EDT

New species of ants have been named after a violent, crocodile-like demon and a Mayan lord of the underworld, among other characters from ancient lore.

Thirty-three new species of predatory ants have been identified in Central America and the Caribbean, and about one-third of the tiny pests have been named after ancient Mayan lords and demons.

When viewed under a microscope, University of Utah biologist Jack Longino said, "These new ant species are the stuff of nightmares."

"Their faces are broad shields, the eyes reduced to tiny points at the edges and the fierce jaws bristling with sharp teeth.

"They look a little like the monster in 'Alien.' They're horrifying to look at up close. That's sort of what makes them fun."

Longino said the news species were mostly found in small patches of forests in rural areas. The location of so many new ant species in the forests highlights "the importance of forest conservation efforts in Central America," Longino said.

The new species are much tinier than the common household variety of ant. The tiny monsters are only one-twelfth to one-twenty-fifth of an inch long, much smaller than a rice grain. Dead leaves littering the forest floor and rotting stumps of wood are where the tiny ants call home.

The nearly blind insects use primitive compound eyes to detect light but not from images. How the predatory ants find their prey is unclear, but it's likely they feed on soft-bodied insects like spiders, centipedes and millipedes. Interestingly, the ants are known to coat themselves with a thin layer of clay, believed to serve as camouflage.

In two separate research papers, Longino describes the 33 new ant species. In a study published online Monday, July 29 in the journal Zootaxa, Longino identified and named 14 new species of the ant genus Eurhopalothrix. In an upcoming publication in the same journal Longino identifies 19 new ant species from the genus Octostruma. The 33 new species bring the number of ant species Longino has discovered during his career to 131.

About 15,000 known species of ants are known worldwide but as genetic differences in similar-looking ants are becoming apparent, "there could be 100,000 ant species," Longino said.

"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."

Among the newly discovered and named species from forest-floor leaf litter:

  • Eurhopalothrix zipacna, named for a violent, crocodile-like Mayan demon and found in Guatemala and Honduras.
  • Eurhopalothrix xibalba, or a "place of fear," for the underworld ruled by death gods in certain Mayan mythology. It lives from Honduras to Costa Rica.
  • Eurhopalothrix hunhau, for a major Mayan death god and a lord of the underworld. This species lives in Mexico and Guatemala.

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