For the study, comprised of two research papers and published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One, authors Georg Fischer, Eli Sarnat and Evan Economo used newly invented 3D-imaging technology "to help identify and document several new ant species," a statement said.
The imaging technology is similar to CT scans used in hospitals, but the trio cranked it up "to a much higher resolution suitable for smaller objects, such as an ant," the statement explained.
"This is one of the first studies in ant taxonomy to use micro-CT," said Economo, a researcher at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University. "While this method is gaining popularity in different scientific fields, it is rare to use it in this way."
Because the world is teeming with ants, discovering a species can be laborious work. Who knows if what's being seen is new? Usually, scientists rely on sketches, drawings, pictures and even written descriptions to help them parse out what's what. But the process doesn't end there.
"If you are working in the bush in Africa and find an ant that you want to identify, it is really difficult to fly all the way to a museum in Europe or the U.S. to see collections of already known species," said Fischer, also with the Institute known as OIST. "This way you can download the virtual ant, make measurements and compare it to the specimen you are trying to identify."
Discovering, identifying, documenting and naming new species predates Charles Darwin and is integral to researchers' efforts to advance the study of biology.
Given their comments, it could appear that the researchers were more excited by the fancy tech used to discover the minor and major drogon worker ants than the ants themselves. Here's why Economo fell in love with the 3D imagery: "Because you can virtually dissect the specimen and examine internal structure on your computer."
But the tech talk distracts from a wild journey to New Guinea that reads like the expedition to the fictional Skull Island where King Kong and other beasts were found.
"New Guinea is prehistoric. It’s got to be one of the wildest places on Earth," said Sarnat, who last made the journey to collect ants in 1999. "There’s no road to where I was collecting. You had to take a plane and land on a grass strip on a mountain. It’s very Jurassic Park -like."
Myrmecologists, who study ants, basically grab them and store them in a museum drawer for later investigation, which is what Sarnat did. When he eventually put his specimens under a microscope, he said he was blown away by their looks and spikes. "They would shock even the seasoned myrmecologist," he said. "They were bizarre." Weirder than most of the 15,000 described ant species.
Sarnat, a manager for a California company called Antwork Consulting, later went to Fiji to collect more ants in a place that lacked New Guinea's primitive splendor. "Only the tops of the mountains are wild," he said. But when he looked at those ants under a microscope, he saw the spikes again and remembered the ants from New Guinea -- 2,400 miles away.
The ants probably arrived in New Guinea 12 million years ago and Fiji not much later, long before humans or ships could transport them as invasive species. At first, Sarnat thought they had to be related. Studies proved him wrong.
He's now wondering if there are other spiked ants in the world, or somewhere in a museum drawer awaiting a closer look and discovery. How two similar-looking species wound up on remote islands far apart is a topic for future study, he said.
As it turns out, the drogon ants aren't as fearsome as they appear. They don't bite humans, and they don't take down prey. Somewhat disappointingly, Sarnat said, they are scavengers and collectors of seeds. The major ants have huge heads, and one theory is that the spikes, packed with muscles, are there to support their noggins.
Alas, there's another theory that makes the drogons seem more meek than menacing. "Another idea of why these crazy spines might have evolved is they’re signaling to predators don’t eat me," Sarnat said. "Like a spiked collar on a dog, like a signal. Don’t mess with me. I might get stuck in your throat."