Blind "Ant From Mars" Found in Amazon

Scott Norris
for National Geographic News
September 16, 2008

An ant so unlike all other living ants that it was given an extraterrestrial name has been discovered in the Amazon rain forest, biologists announced today.

The tiny new species is the only known surviving member of an ant lineage that separated from the main family more than a hundred million years ago, DNA analysis revealed.

The pale, eyeless ant appears to be adapted to living underground, possibly surfacing at night to forage.

Its long mandibles suggest that the 0.08-inch-long (2-millimeter-long) animal is a predator, most likely of soft-bodied creatures such as termite larvae.

Christian Rabeling, a graduate student at the University of Texas in Austin, found a single specimen of the new species, thought to be a worker ant, in tropical soils near Manaus, Brazil.

Rabeling's team named the new creature Martialis heureka—"Martialis" means "of Mars"—after Harvard biologist and ant expert Edward O. Wilson, who was not part of the study team, commented on its unearthly appearance.

(Read a 2006 profile of Edward O. Wilson, who has been dubbed "Darwin's natural heir.")

"This beast is totally new to science," Rabeling said.

He and colleagues describe the new ant in a paper published online this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A Branch All Its Own

While superficially similar to other ants, Martialis differs in many anatomical details, experts say.

"The body characters and structures of this new species are not only unique, but almost bizarre," said Corrie Moreau of the Field Museum in Chicago, who was not part of the new study.

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