New “Demon” Ants Named for Maya Underlords

The devil’s in the details when it comes to fearsome-looking ant species found recently in Central America and the Caribbean. 

When viewed under a microscope, some of these 33 new tiny terrors have distinctly fierce jaws and sharp teeth not seen in related ants, according to Jack Longino, an entomologist at the University of Utah.

ant species
Eurhopalothrix semicapillum is named for  patches of hair on its face. Image courtesy John T. Longino, University of Utah

“You can design your next Halloween mask out of one of them,” said Longino, who described some of the ants July 29 in the journal Zootaxa. (Read: “Elusive Killer Ants Explained; Bop Insects on Heads.”)

“They’re horrifying to look at up close. That’s sort of what makes them fun.”

Indeed Longino enjoyed naming some of the insects after mythological figures of the Maya, an ancient Central American civilization. There’s the ant Eurhopalothrix zipacna, which is named for Zipacna, a violent, crocodile-like demon. (Explore an interactive map of key Maya sites.)

Eurhopalothrix xibalba—xibalba meaning “place of fear,” references the underworld ruled by Maya death gods. Eurhopalothrix hunhau is named after Hunhau, a major Maya death god and a lord of the underworld. Others were named for their physical appearances, such as Eurhopalothrix semicapillum (above)’s hairy face patches: Semicapillum roughly translates to “partial hair” in Latin.

All of the teensy predators—each smaller than a grain of rice—inhabit leaf litter of the forest floor, where they prey on other soft-bodied insects.

Ants in Danger?

Longino and colleagues have spent years cataloging tropical ant species in Central America, collecting bags of dirt and taking them back to the lab. “It’s kind of like Christmas—you never know what’s going to be in there,” he said. (See cool ant pictures in National Geographic magazine.)

But they’re not all good surprises—many of the ants that Longino has discovered live in isolated patches of mature, old-growth forests that are surrounded by encroaching human development and agriculture. That means that some of the ants may be in danger of becoming extinct.

“It might be hard to attach too much importance to one more species of tiny leaf litter ant,” he said. But “I want people to think about the larger goal of getting to know the world’s biodiversity while we still have a chance.”

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Meet the Author
Christine Dell'Amore, environment writer/editor for National Geographic News, has reported from six continents, including Antarctica. She has also written for Smithsonian magazine and the Washington Post. Christine holds a masters degree in journalism with a specialty in environmental reporting from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her book, South Pole, was published in 2012.