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New species of 'pirate' ant with highly unusual pigmentation found in the Philippines

28/05/2013 10:38:08

Cardiocondyla pirata, or the pirate ant, can be distinguished by a dark stripe across the eyes resembling the eye patch of a pirate. Credit: Bernhard Seifert

Eye-patch ant posing questions
May 2013. Scientists have discovered a new enigmatic species of ant in the Philippines. The pirate ant (Cardiocondyla pirate) engages the imagination with a bizarre colouring pattern that has not been recorded anywhere in the world before. The female ants can be recognized by a distinctive dark stripe across the eyes that resembles a pirate eye patch, which inspired the scientists to choose the name Cardiocondyla pirate.

"On a collection trip to the Philippines we looked for different species of the genus Cardiocondyla which is known for its astonishing morphological and behavioural diversity of male ants. During the search we discovered a previously unknown species in the cracks of big stones in a shady streambed. Due to the darkness of the rainforest and the translucent body parts of the tiny ants they were nearly invisible. Under bright light and a magnifier we detected the stripe across the eyes and so we always referred to these ants as "the pirates", said Sabine Frohschammer, PhD student Universität Regensburg.

This image shows the bizarre eye pattern of the new pirate ant, Cardiocondyla pirata.  Credit: Bernhard Seifert

This image shows the bizarre eye pattern of the new pirate ant, Cardiocondyla pirata. Credit: Bernhard Seifert

What remains a mystery for scientists is the adaptive significance of the very unusual pigmentation pattern. The poor vision and the fact that these ants mate in the dark exclude one of the most obvious hypotheses that the dark patch serve as a sign for sexual differentiation and thus a cue for recognition during mating.

A possible guess about the function of this bizarre pirate-like coloration pattern is that it serves as a tool to distract and confuse the enemy. The combination of the dark stripes together with a rather translucent body when living could leave the impression in predators that the anterior and posterior body parts are in fact two separate objects.

However even if this hypothesis is true the enigmatic pigmentation pattern of Cardiocondyla pirata will continue to engage the minds of scientists as the question remains: "Which predator with a high-performance visual system preys on these tiny ants?" comment the authors of the study.

The study was published in the open access journal Zookeys.

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