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New Ant Species Hides in Plain View

Oct 01, 2014 05:06 PM EDT

You know how people often say what you're looking for is usually right in front of your face? Well, that was the case for researchers who discovered a new ant species hiding in plain sight.

Cephalotes specularis was first documented when Dr. Scott Powell, assistant professor of biology at the George Washington University, conducting field research on turtle ants in the savannah region of Brazil. These host ants, called Crematogaster ampla, are typically hyper-aggressive towards any foreign invaders. Curiously, when one infiltrating ant encroached on their territory, the turtle ants did nothing - Powell's first clue that something was amiss. What's more, both ant species looked almost exactly the same.

"I did a true double-take when I first saw this new species," Powell said in a statement. "As I turned away, after seeing what appeared to be large numbers of host foragers, it registered that a couple of the ants I had just laid eyes on were not quite like the others. Turning back around, I managed to re-find the few peculiar ants in the masses of host ants, and everything followed from there."

After two years of research, Powell and colleagues finally determined that C. specularis was an entirely different species, and given its remarkable similarity to the turtle ants, were dubbed mirror turtle ants.

Mirror turtle ants are the first-known ant species to use visual mimicry to parasitize another ant species. In a James Bond-like fashion, these insects have studied their prey carefully, mastering the movements of C. ampla while dodging them so as not be to detected by their foreign scent. By mimicking C. ampla, the mirror turtle ants can access their food and follow their foraging trails to food sources. In spy terms, this new form of social parasitism allows ants to steal food from an enemy.

"Beyond the fascinating biology of this new ant, we appear to have a rare window into the early stages of the evolution of social parasitism, before the parasite has lost much of its free-living biology," Powell explained. "This promises to help us better understand the general pressures that tip a species towards a parasitic lifestyle."

The new ant species is described in further detail in the journal The American Naturalist.

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