In 2003, an entomologist in Malaysia found a single dead ant whose little pincers reminded him Tyrannosaurus rex’s mini arms. So, of course, he named the new species Tyrannomyrmex rex. Now, over a decade later, researchers have found a living colony of the species, reports Michael Greshko at National Geographic, and it turns out the little ant is not nearly as formidable as its namesake.
Greshko reports that entomologists Mark Wong and Gordon Yong located the ants in March 2016 while surveying the forests of Mandai in Singapore. The team collected the colony of 13 workers along with eggs, larvae and pupae and studied their behavior. They published their work in the journal Asian Myrmecology.
As Ryan F. Mandelbaum reports for Gizmodo, the ants were completely different from what researchers expected. First of all, entomologists believed the ants needed undisturbed forests to survive, but the team found them living in rotting wood in a second growth forest on a military base near piles of trash. Second, unlike their namesake, they are true fraidy cats.
“I...find their shy nature ironic and amusing,” Wong tells Mandelbaum. “Tyrannomyrmex would actually translate into 'tyrant ant' (Tyranno is Latin for 'tyrant'; myrmex is Greek for 'ant'), but it soon became clear these ants aren’t in any way tyrants, in fact quite the opposite if you look at how they 'freeze up' when other organisms come close, and quickly run away after.”
According to Greshko, the ants were afraid of everything from millipedes to mites to smaller ants. They were even scared of drops of honey.
Despite offering the ants all types of food, the researchers could not figure out what the insects ate, Stephanie Pappas reports for LiveScience. In fact, as soon as one of the ants emerged from its pupa, the other members of the colony ate him.
The strangest thing about the ant, reports Greshko, is that does not have a working metapleural gland, which, in other ant species, secretes antiseptic compounds that keep the ants clean and healthy, especially while living in close quarters in the colony. It seems odd that the a species living in rotting wood in the ground would not have such a means to keep clean, Wong tells Greshko.
Though the team has not been able to find more T. rex in the Mandai area, Mandelbaum reports that it’s likely the species is not as rare as it seems. The fact that it lives in rotting wood under the ground, is very picky about food and is likely nocturnal, just makes it hard to find.