Despite sounding like a monster strictly limited to the pages of a fantasy novel, researchers have identified two species of dragon ants in the Papuan New Guinea jungle. With super-spikey black blades jutting out of their backs, they couldn’t resist naming them after the barbed dragons from Game of Thrones. Although thankfully the similarities do not stretch to the ability to jettison fire out of their nostrils or soar through the skies.
Scientists from Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University used ground-breaking 3D imaging technology to classify several new ants species, including the spiked Pheidole viserion and Pheidole drogon, named after dragons owned by the character Daenerys.
Taxonomists have previously classified species by examining photographs, drawings and verbal descriptions. However, here they used X-ray microtomography to generate striking 3D images similar to those produced by a CT scan, scanning a mounted specimen with X-rays while rotating it 360 degrees.
“If you are working in the bush in Africa and find an ant that you want to identify, it is really difficult to fly all the way to a museum in Europe or the US to see collections of already known species,” explains co-author Georg Fischer. “This way you can download the virtual ant, make measurements, and compare it to the specimen you are trying to identify.”
The 3D imaging technology also let the team look inside the spines to help explain why they have these dragon-esque barbs. They mapped out the spines of soldier workers, who typically defend their colony from predators and rival ants. Due to the nature of their role, it was assumed that the spikes were part of a defence mechanism to ward off uninvited visitors – but the images produced contradicted this idea. The barbs were stuffed full of muscle fibres, letting them theorise that the spines help to support to the ant’s skeletomuscular structure, keeping their body structure robust.
Viserion and drogon are a small drop in the ocean when it comes to the species diversity found in New Guinea, which comprises of just one per cent of the world’s land area but over five per cent of all animal and plant species. However, due to the rise of the logging and agricultural industry, winter may be coming for this diversity. Hopefully these powerful dragon ants can help raise awareness of this crisis, at least amongst Game of Thrones fans.