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University of Utah scientist discovers terrifying ant species

Published August 2, 2013 7:48 am

Science • Predatory ants found in Central America named for Mayan gods, demons.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Their wedge-shaped faces are like spine-covered shields that end with beak-like jaws bristling with sharp teeth.

"They look a little like the monster in 'Alien.' They're horrifying to look at up close," says University of Utah biology professor Jack Longino. "That's sort of what makes them fun."

Longino, an entomologist, has identified 33 new species of predatory ants from Central America and the Caribbean, according to a statement from the U. He named the monstrous-looking creatures after ancient Mayan gods and demons.

But while the ants might look fierce under the microscope, they are also tiny — less than 1/12 to 1/25 of an inch long, far smaller than a grain of rice or common household ants.

They're also nearly blind, with primitive eyes that detect light but not images, and live in the rotting wood and dead leaves on Central American forest floors.

Researchers collect the ants by sifting through the dirt with specialized tools. It's not clear how the ants find their prey, but it's thought they coat themselves in a thin layer of clay for camouflage.

Once they catch it, though, the insects don't exactly eat their prey, which researchers presume are soft-bodied insects, spiders, millipedes and centipedes. Adults only consume liquids, so they bring the hapless bugs back to their larvae, which eat the prey and regurgitate it so it can be eaten by the adults.

Longino identified and named 14 new species of the ant genus Eurhopalothrix in a study published online Monday in the journal Zootaxa. The journal has also accepted a second, upcoming study by Longino identifying 19 new ant species from the genus Octostruma, bringing his career-long total of new ant species discovered to 131.

The ants' namesakes include Zipacna, a violent, crocodile-like Mayan demon; Xibalba, or a "place of fear," for an underworld ruled by death gods, and Hunhau, a Mayan death god.

lwhitehurst@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lwhitehurst