Mini-monsters of the forest floor

July 29, 2013 — A University of Utah biologist has identified 33 new species of predatory ants in Central America and the Caribbean, and named about a third of the tiny but monstrous-looking insects after ancient Mayan lords and demons.”These new ant species are the stuff of nightmares” when viewed under a microscope, says entomologist Jack Longino, a professor of biology. “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.”In a study published online Monday, July 29 in the journal Zootaxa, Longino identified and named 14 new species of the ant genus Eurhopalothrix and distinguished them from 14 other previously known species. The genus name is Greek and refers to the club-shaped hairs on many Eurhopalothrix (pronounced you-row-pal-oh-thrix) species.In another upcoming study accepted for publication in the same journal, Longino identified 19 new ant species from the genus Octostruma (pronounced oct-oh-strew-ma) and described differences from 15 other previously known species. The genus name means “eight swellings” for the ants’ eight-segmented antennas.”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,” Longino says.The new ant species are less than one-twelfth to one-twenty-fifth of an inch long — much smaller than a rice grain or common half-inch-long household ants — and live in the rotting wood and dead leaves that litter the forest floors in Central America.”They are nearly eyeless and crawl around in leaf litter,” using primitive compound eyes to detect light but not form images. No one knows how they find their prey, presumed to be soft-bodied insects, spiders, millipedes and centipedes. But the ants are known to coat themselves with a thin layer of clay, believed to serve as camouflage.Ant Lords of Leaf LitterAmong 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.Some of the scary looking new species have more mundane names, such as Eurhopalothrix semicapillum, named for partial patches of hair on its face, and Octostruma convallis, named after the curved groove across its face.Longino named one species Eurhopalothrix ortizae, after Patricia Ortiz, a Costa Rican naturalist who died in a rock-fall accident this year.The horror-show faces of some of the new species feature what is known as the labrum, which is like an upper lip, and jaws that open and close sideways instead of up and down as teeth on the jaws clamp down on prey.”If you really want a movie monster that freaks people out, have the jaws go side to side,” Longino says.”Ants are everywhere,” Longino says. “They are one of the big elements of ecosystems, like birds and trees. …

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