Jul 28, 2016

'Game of Thrones' Spiked Ants Discovered

3-D scan of the newly discovered ant Pheidole drogon.
The dragons Viserion and Drogon from the "Game of Thrones" fantasy novels and TV series have come to life in miniature as two newly discovered muscular, spiny ants, which are described in a new study.

The new ants, Pheidole viserion and Pheidole drogon, not only feature dragon-like characteristics, but the soldier ants of these species also have massive heads relative to the size of the rest of their bodies. The formidable insects are documented in the journal PLOS ONE.

3-D scans of a Pheidole drogon minor (left) and a major worker (right).
Researchers Georg Fischer, Eli Sarnat and Evan Economo from the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University found the ants in the tropical rainforests of Papua New Guinea. To study the ants, they used a cutting edge 3-D imaging technology called x-ray microtomography, which is like a hospital CT scan, but with a much higher resolution suitable for small organisms.

"This is one of the first studies in ant taxonomy to use micro-CT," Economo, head of OIST's Biodiversity and Biocomplexity Unit, said in a press release. "While this method is gaining popularity in different scientific fields, it is rare to use it in this way."

Pheidole viserion.
Fischer said, "If you are working in the bush in Africa and find an ant that you want to identify, it is really difficult to fly all the way to a museum in Europe or the U.S. to see collections of already known species. This way you can download the virtual ant, make measurements, and compare it to the specimen you are trying to identify."

That process, along with more traditional analysis, allowed the researchers to determine that the found ants represent new species. The ants now "live" in 3-D, allowing them to be dissected, archived and shared with other scientists around the world.

The spines on the ants help to protect the insects, but the scientists think the sharp appendages serve another surprising function, given the ants' enormous heads.

"Once you open up the rotational 3-D PDF and see these ants' extraordinary spines, or 'inordinate spinescence' as we phrase it in the study, you can't help but ask why on earth these structures evolved," Sarnat said. "The most obvious answer is defense, but the internal morphology revealed by this new micro-CT scanning technology suggests that the answer might also have something to do with muscle mechanics and powering the huge heads of the soldier ants."

Read more at Discovery News

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