Evolution turned this ant into a living drill

Science | AAAS | 8/24/2018 | Staff
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Anyone who’s attempted to cut down a tree by hand knows just how difficult it is to chop through living wood. It turns out wood-boring ants do, too—so they’ve transformed themselves into bizarre, living drills. A new study reveals that extreme adaptations unlike anything seen in other ants let them carve complicated tunnel networks in their host trees.

Not much is known about Melissotarsus ants—native to continental Africa and Madagascar—because they’re only a few millimeters long and never leave the carved galleries of their trees. Inside, the ants are thought to herd sedentary scale insects for food, eating their tasty wax secretions or even their meat. Worker ants have two pairs of back legs that perpetually angle upward and a bulbous head loaded with silk glands (a unique feature among ants). Entomologists have long thought these features must assist with the ants’ unconventional lifestyle, but they weren’t sure exactly how.

Strength - Wood - Peeters - Research - Biologist

“It was not obvious how they could derive the strength to chew live wood,” says Christian Peeters, a research biologist at Sorbonne University in Paris and senior author on the study.

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So Peeters and his team took a closer look. The researchers removed ant-inhabited branches from trees in Mozambique and South Africa, sending them back to the lab in Paris. There they combined x-ray microtomography (a type of 3D x-ray imaging for tiny objects) and high-powered microscopes to visualize the ants’ skeletomuscular system, focusing on the anatomy of the head, jaws, and legs.

Domes - House - Muscles - Head - Mandibles

It turns out that their big domes house more than just silk glands—huge muscles fill the head, anchored to short, sharp mandibles, the team reports in Frontiers in Zoology. These muscles provide the jaws with enormous chiseling power that can tunnel through hardwood. In contrast, ants with...
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