New “Pirate” Ant Discovered in the Philippines

A new species of ant, the pirate ant, sports eye patches. Photograph courtesy Bernhard Seifert

Image of the 125 Anniversary logo The pirate ant might not be able to make you walk the plank, but dark-colored patches around their eyes certainly make this new species look like they could bully ants off a ship.

Discovered by a team of German scientists while on a trip to the Philippines, Cardiocondyla pirata was found living under a rock—literally. PhD student Sabine Frohschammer  from the University of Regensburg and her colleague Bernhard Seifert from Senckenberg Museum of Natural History Gorlitz were searching for Cardiocondyla ants in a shady streambed when she saw individuals that didn’t look like any other known species.

Researchers found the pirate ant near a stream in the Philippines. lives in this habitat. Photograph courtesy Sabine Frohschammer
Researchers found the pirate ant near a stream in the Philippines. Photograph courtesy Sabine Frohschammer

“Due to the darkness of the rainforest and the translucent body parts of the tiny ants, they were nearly invisible,” Frohschammer said in a press release.

As she looked more closely, however, Frohschammer knew she had found something special. Some of the females she had gathered had unusual coloration around their eyes—dark patches that reminded Frohschammer of the eye patches worn by some pirates.

A search of the research literature revealed that Frohschammer’s initial hunch was correct: Not only was this an entirely new species of ant, the coloration was unique as well. The researchers recently reported their find in the journal ZooKeys.

The dark, eye patch-like pattern on the new ant speices. Photograph courtesy Bernhard Seifert
The dark, eye-patch-like pattern on the new ant species. Photograph courtesy Bernhard Seifert

But unlike Captain Hook, these ants don’t live on a pirate ship. Instead, Frohschammer believes that the ants live their entire lives buried underground in almost complete darkness. Their eyes reflect their lives in the dark, as they contain an abnormally small number of light receptors.

If the pirate ants live in the dark and can’t see very well, this makes it unlikely that the eye patch is used either as a signal during mating or as a way for individuals to recognize other members of their species, Frohschammer noted in the study.

Her current hypothesis is that the eye patch serves to confuse and distract predators. The dark stripe seems to divide the ant’s tiny, translucent head in two, which could make predators think that such a ridiculously small morsel isn’t worth their time. Frohschammer still isn’t sure what, if any, predators might be consuming them.

It wouldn’t be the first time a pirate tried to conceal buried treasure.

Changing Planet

Carrie is a freelance science writer living in Virginia. When she's not writing about cool critters, she's spending time outside, drinking coffee, or knitting. You can visit her website at http://www.carriearnold.com