Tiny Forest 'Monsters' Named after Mayan Demons: 33 New Species of Ants

First Posted: Jul 31, 2013 07:03 AM EDT

In Central America and the Caribbean, tiny monsters live in the forest. There, these predatory creatures stalk their food, using their mandibles to drag their prey back to their nests. What are these monsters? They're ants. Now, one biologist has identified 33 new species of these "monster" ants, naming the insects after ancient Mayan lords and demons.

"These new ant species are the stuff of nightmares," said Jack Longino, the entomologist who discovered the 33 species, in a news release. "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."

The ants are tiny--less than one-twelfth to one-twenty-fifth of an inch long. That makes them smaller that a rice grain or common half-inch-long household ants. But don't let that fool you--they're vicious. Living on the rotting wood and dead leaves that litter the forest floors in Central America, these ants prey on other insects that are soft-bodied. Unable to properly swallow their prey, though, the adult ants drag the insects back to their nests. There, ant larvae eat the prey and then regurgitate it so that the adults can consume the fruits of their labors in liquid form.

The horrific faces of some of the ants that were discovered feature what is known as a labrum, which is like an upper lip, and jaws that open and close sideways. "If you really want a movie monster that freaks people out, have the jaws go side to side," said Longino in a news release.

Despite their scary appearances, though, the 33 new species play an important role in the ecosystem. They act as predators of other insects and so control population levels. In addition, they'll clear away dead insects from the forest floor. Some species even move seeds around, which impacts what plants grow where. And, of course, ants aerate soil by building their tunnels, which helps plants to grow.

"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," said Longino in a news release.

The new findings bring up the number of new ant species that Longino has discovered to 131 over the course of his career.

The findings are published in two new papers published in the journal Zootaxa.

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