Scientists have discovered 33 new species of monstrous-looking predatory ants in Central America and the Caribbean. The University of Utah biologist who identified the insects named about a third of them after ancient Mayan lords and demons. These new ant species are the stuff of nightmares when viewed under a microscope, according to 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," Longino said. In a study published 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. In another upcoming study accepted for publication in the same journal, Longino identified 19 new ant species from the genus Octostruma and described differences from 15 other previously known species.
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. Among the newly discovered species from forest-floor leaf litter, Eurhopalothrix zipacna was named for a violent, crocodile-like Mayan demon. Eurhopalothrix xibalba, or a "place of fear," was named for the underworld ruled by death gods in certain Mayan mythology. Eurhopalothrix hunhau was named for a major Mayan death god and a lord of the underworld.