A funky ant

October 29, 2012 • 10:09 am

by Matthew Cobb

Last night, Alex Wild (@Myrmecos) tweeted this great photo of a bizarre Ugandan ant, Calyptomyrmex (species not given, but maybe piripilis – if so, it’s about 2-3 mm long), which he took on a recent trip to Africa. Alex wrote on his website: “Calyptomyrmex is a small myrmicine genus found in Africa, Asia, and Australia. These robust, ornamented ants inhabit rotting wood and leaf litter in forested habitats. Little is known of their biology.”

Alex had disturbed the nest, so this worker was delicately picking up one of her sisters or nieces:

A Calyptomyrmex worker rescues a larva when her nest is disturbed by the photographer. The function of the ornate, spatulate hairs is unknown.  Kibale forest, Uganda

Ed Yong (@edyong209) was intrigued by the striking bobbles (aka “the ornate, spatulate hairs”) all over the ant and invited Alex to speculate what their function might be. The answer was “I’m guessing they retain soil odors: it’s smell-camouflage for hunting unsuspecting prey in dark spaces in the leaf litter.”  I’m not convinced (something about an odour camouflage doesn’t quite ring true to me, though I couldn’t put my finger on why). It would be possible to test the hypothesis by seeing whether you could extract smells from the bobbles, using a tiny fibre and a technique called Solid Phase Micro-Extraction (SPME). Of course, you’d have to see whether a nude ant had absorbed significantly less of the soil odour.

Many Calyptomyrmex ants have these bobbles to one degree or another – some of the bobbles are small and thin (in the preserved specimens at least), others are bubbly.

So, WEIT readers, what do you think of this funky ant?

Here’s another, in the wild:

Calyptomyrmex  Kibale forest, Uganda

And here’s one in a white box:

Calyptomyrmex  Kibale forest, Uganda

Thanks to Alex for permission to reproduce these photos. If you want to buy copies of these or any of his thousands of other fantastic photos, head on over to his website!

You see Jerry, Twitter is useful!

23 thoughts on “A funky ant

    1. I don’t think you can go by what the blobs look like – don’t forget the museum specimens are all dried up; if there’s any fluid in those blobs, they may not look like a wild specimen.

      The reason I suggested piripilis was because antweb.org has links to the places where the ants were collected. The Ugandan site where Alex collected this ant also saw the collection of a specimen of piripilis. http://www.antweb.org/locality.do?name=JTL058239

      Come on Alex, put us out of our misery!

      1. I’m running into the same troubles you guys. I don’t have a specimen. I can’t see the key characters in my photographs (which have to do with the front of the head near the mouth), and the ant doesn’t match any of the specimens up on antweb.

        So, I’m stuck at the genus level.

        It could be an undescribed species too, I suppose.

        1. Actually this is Calyptomyrmex piripilis. Alex, this worker derives from collection PSW16850, does it not? By the way, the eol specimen of C. piripilis is a misidentification: the eye is too large, and the spatulate hairs (aka “bobbles”) are too thin. The definitive taxonomic treatment on African Calyptomyrmex was published in 1981 (Bull. Br. Mus. Nat. Hist. (Entomol.) 42:43-81) but it is still quite serviceable because the author, Barry Bolton, was (and still is) an amazingly careful and perceptive systematist–and he had the stellar collections of the Natural History Museum (London) to draw upon.

          1. Excellent. Thanks for the ID, Phil.

            I’ve been using Bolton’s excellent keys, but I ran into trouble early on with this one as I couldn’t see some of the clypeal characters.

  1. Perhaps they’re less attractive to predators because they look as though they’ve been infested with a fungus of some sort. Don’t eat that ant – it’s got chlamydia!

  2. I am wondering if these sensilla might have a dual role in addition to providing a sense of touch or taste. Maybe they also communicate their species identity by texture. In the dark tunnels, ants would explore with their antennae. If they encounter another ant, they can tell by the bumpy texture that this ant is one of the same species they are.

  3. Yes – Twitter is really useful for current awareness so I tweet for our library about articles & information or links.

  4. Magnificent! Could these ‘bobbles’ be some of mechanism to impede evaporative water loss, i.e. create a boundary layer? Is the waxy epicuticle of this species thinner than that of its congeners?

  5. The idea of odor camouflage for these ants does not seem so far off. Some possibly important predators of ants in that region are scolecophidian snakes (typhlopids and leptotyphlopids) which are burrowers and very odor-reliant (their eyes are reduced) and are more or less ant/termite specialists. They often go for the eggs and larvae but will eat adult ants also.

    1. Oops… didn’t mean to put my comment as a reply to yours, Richard, though I do like your speculation. Does anyone know if ants go around reeking (to each other, maybe not to us?) of formic acid?

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