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What is a thistledown velvet ant? © Alamy

Why the thistledown velvet ant is one of nature’s strangest creatures

Published: 04th March, 2022 at 11:00
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Despite the name, this fuzzy insect isn't an ant at all - it's actually a type of wasp.

This creature is a misnomer wrapped in a cloak of punky, white fuzz. It’s a misnomer because the unusual critter is not an ant, it’s a parasitic wasp that’s native to the desert regions of the American Southwest.

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The white, fluffy females are wingless, and so superficially ant-like. In contrast, males have wings and a classic wasp livery of orange and black. This vibrant attire warns potential predators that the wasps are not to be crossed – velvet ants have one of the longest stingers (relative to body length) of any bee or wasp.

However, the female’s appearance has been something of an enigma. Females look like the fuzzy seeds of the scrubby creosote bushes that grow where the wasps live, so experts had presumed that the insects had evolved their appearance as a form of camouflage. But genetic analyses revealed that the wasps preceded the arrival of the creosote bush to the American Southwest by around five million years.

Cue experiments placing white-coloured and vibrantly-coloured ants under heat lamps, and it seems that the female’s white spiky coat helps it not to overheat. Proof, beyond doubt, that the punk look remains as cool today as it ever was!

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Authors

Helen Pilcher
Helen PilcherScience writer, presenter and performer.

Helen Pilcher is a tea-drinking, biscuit-nibbling science and comedy writer, with a PhD in cell biology.

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