They don't breathe fire, nor do they fly.
But two new ant species in Papua New Guinea bear some strange resemblance to the mythical dragons in Game of Thrones: the ants possess spiny barbs along their shoulders and backs.
Because of this uncanny likeness, researchers have gotten inspired to name the insects after Khaleesi's dragons. It's as if these ferocious beasts came to life in insect form, experts say.
Identifying New Ant Species
Taxonomy — or the scientific process of identifying, documenting and classifying new species — is one of the most archaic and most basic tasks in biology. Traditional methods require the new species to be described with drawings, verbal descriptions or photographs.
In the new study, scientists from the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) employed cutting-edge 3D imaging technology for taxonomy, together with some conventional techniques.
The OIST researchers, which comprised of Dr. Eli Sarnat, Professor Evan Economo and Dr. Georg Fischer, had discovered several new ant species in the tropical rainforests of Papua New Guinea.
With the help of a technique called X-ray microtomography, a technology that is similar to hospital CT scans, scientists were able to examine smaller objects such as ants at such a high resolution.
Professor Economo, the head of the Biodiversity and Biocomplexity Unit of the team, says their research is the first of its kind to use micro-CT in ant studies. As soon as the ants are micro-CT-scanned, the insects become "virtual specimens" that exist in 3D, allowing it to be archived, dissected and even shared with other experts from across the world.
Fischer, a postdoc scholar in the same unit with Economo, says anyone can download the virtual ant, create their own measurements and compare it to the specimen they are trying to study.
Dragon Ants And Their Spiny Barbs
Researchers used 3D imaging to describe the two groups of ant species and then produced 3D galleries for each of them. They also took advantage of the technology to examine the spines of major worker ants to understand their function.
In the end, scientists found that the two newly discovered insects appear dragon-like because of their unique characteristics, including their large and distinctive spines.
And although the most obvious function of the ants' spines is to act as defense against predators, the spines were actually filled with muscle, making the ants stronger and more robust compared with non-spiny ants.
One of the two ant species was designated Pheidole viserion, after Daenerys Targaryen's red orange-winged dragon. The other species was called Pheidole drogon, which was named after the most aggressive and largest of three Targaryen dragons.
Sarnat, lead author of the research, suggests that the presence of the muscles could mean that the spines may be crucial in holding up the ants' gargantuan heads. He says one problem is how the spines evolved that way in the first place.
"A little spine won't help as a defense mechanism," says Sarnat.
He suggests that there might have been another use for the spine that would have given the ants an advantage. The spines in the back did not have muscles like the shoulders, but the latter may act as a skeleto-muscular support for the head in soldier ants.
Meanwhile, James Traniello, an expert from Boston University and was not involved in the research, says it is interesting to consider that the spines may serve a different function. However, he believes further investigations must be done to test the theory. Sarnat agrees.
Details of the new study are published in the journal PLOS ONE.
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