U.S. biologist identifies 33 tiny and terrifying new ant species throughout Latin America

July 31, 2013

A University of Utah biologist has identified 33 new species of predatory ants living throughout Latin America, including 10 in Costa Rica.

Professor John Longino found the species as far north as Mexico and Cuba, and others as far south as Argentina. The carnivorous ants live on the ground in tropical forests, presumably feasting on soft-bodied insects, millipedes and spiders. Longino collected their specimens by sifting through litter on the forest floor, mostly rotting plant matter.

“They have broad, shield-like faces, no eyes and large mandibles,” Longino said in a phone interview with The Tico Times.  

The fearsome appearance of their heads gave Longino the idea to name a few species after Mayan mythology’s death god, underworld and crocodile demon (Eurhopalothrix hunhau, Eurhopalothrix xibalba and Eurhopalothrix zipacna, respectively). Bumpy hairs protrude from the tops of the ants and they are nearly blind; their primitive eyes are only able to detect light. Their mandibles, or jaws, move from side to side to grasp prey.

The ants’ size — about a quarter of a grain of rice — belies these scary characteristics. Furthermore, Longino noted that the gruesome-looking adults are actually incapable of devouring their prey, relying on the colony’s larva to consume and then regurgitate what they capture. Longino said this was a common feature of most ants.

“The colony is like a whole organism,” Longino said. “The larvae are like the stomach. When adults are picking up cookie crumbs from your picnic, they can’t eat it themselves.”

Longino identified one species in Monteverde, a cloud forest paradise in north-central Costa Rica, that he named Ortizae after Patricia Ortiz, an Ecuadorian who had been studying and teaching wildlife biology in the region. Ortiz, 40, died in March while at a waterfall with several of her students. Rocks fell on the group, striking and killing her.

“She was a rising star of tropical biology,” Longino said.

Ortiz had worked since 1997 at the Monteverde Institute. Longino said the name was fitting as the ant species was restricted to the Monteverde region.

Longino has worked in Costa Rica since 1979, where he conducted doctorate research in Corcovado National Park while attending the University of Texas. He credits the well-preserved tropical forest for why he spent so much time in the country. “I learned more in those two years than I ever have since,” he said.

While doing research in Monteverde, Longino met his wife — a biology graduate student who focused on the other end of the forest, the canopy. Longino also ran an insect biodiversity program for 15 years in Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui in northeastern Costa Rica.

Recent work has moved Longino north to Nicaragua and Mexico, but he hopes to return to Costa Rica. He said he aims to study ants in the Talamanca high forests in south central Costa Rica.

Longino credited the nation’s extensive national park system for his lengthy and hopefully continuing wildlife research in Costa Rica.

“Costa Ricans have heard this many times, but it can’t be said enough,” Longino said. “How proud they should be for preserving these national parks. They have much more in them than creepy little ants.”

Longino has additional photos of the ants published at his website antweb.org.

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