Found in Brazil, the ant has a pale body and no eyes, says [lead researcher] Christian Rabeling.... Its mouthparts stick out like sharp forceps and are longer than the rest of its head. Its DNA may be even more interesting. Genetic analysis puts the new ant so far from other species that it deserves its own subfamily [Science News].
Researchers named the subterranean ant Martialis heureka, which translates to "eureka ant from Mars," because of the new species' odd morphology and because of their own excitement over finding it. Researchers say that a DNA analysis suggests that the M. heurekaevolved earlier than any other living ant, and that it has changed little over 50 million years.
"This discovery lends support to the idea that blind, subterranean predator ants arose at the dawn of ant evolution," Rabeling said [LiveScience].
Rabeling says the ant's strange characteristics can give researchers clues about what the very first ants looked like.
He said it was likely that the new ant species evolved adaptations to its subterranean habitat over time, such as its lack of eyes and paleness, while retaining other physical characteristics of its ancestors. “The new ant species is hidden in environmentally stable tropical soils with potentially less competition from other ants and in a relatively stable microclimate,” he said. “It could represent a ‘relic' species that retained some ancestral morphological characteristics” [The Times].
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [subscription required], will add to the entomological debate over where and how the first ants evolved.
Scientists have long believed that the first ants were wasp-like surface dwellers, but recent findings suggest that ants evolved underground, coming to the surface 125 million years ago, when flowering plants evolved and created new ecological niches [Wired News].
The discovery of M. heureka, with its primitive characteristics that echo earlier ancestors, seems to support the hypothesis that the first ants dwelled underground. For a guided tour to the wondrous diversity of ants, follow biologist Brian Fisher into the Madagascar forest in the DISCOVER article, "Antsy in Madagascar." Image: C. Rabeling and M. Verhaagh