Ants know a thing or two about espionage and tradecraft, at least if you consider the ant(ics) of a new species found in Brazil that has mastered the art of visually blending in behind enemy lines, a first for ants.
Cephalotes specularis, or the mirror turtle ant, was discovered by Scott Powell, assistant professor of biology at George Washington University. Powell was researching turtle ants in Brazil's savannah region when he came across a species of ant somehow able to infiltrate the turf of another type of ant -- all without getting attacked for being the spy and food leech it was.
The species of ant whose turf was being infiltrated, Crematogaster ampla, has a reputation for being aggressive, and yet Powell noticed it did not attack C. specularis. The latter looked a bit different, but the little agent in place was able to go unnoticed.
How was this possible? Powell spent the next two years finding out. He concluded that his new species C. specularis was able to behave like C. ampla -- aping its body movements while not getting close enough to the enemy let its "interloper" scent give it away. This allowed the sneaky mirror turtle ant to dine from C. ampla's food supply and even forage along its food trails.
Powell had found in his new mirror turtle ant the first known ant species to use visual mimicry to live off, or "parasitize" another ant species.
"Beyond the fascinating biology of this new ant, we appear to have a rare window into the early stages of the evolution of social parasitism, before the parasite has lost much of its free-living biology," said Powell in a release. "This promises to help us better understand the general pressures that tip a species towards a parasitic lifestyle."
Powell recently published his findings in the journal The American Naturalist.