There’s no such thing as a dragon–which breathes fire and flies–in the real world, but scientists have named two, anyway. The newly discovered ant species in New Guinea have taken the names of dragons in the popular drama TV show Game of Thrones. And recently, the tiny crawling creatures have been getting great attention on the internet.
Published July 27 of this year in the journal PLOS ONE, scientists Eli Sarnat, Georg Fischer and Evan Economo, from the Okinawa Institute of Science & Technology Graduate University in Japan, revealed that the appearance of the ants inspired them to name it for the fire-breathing characters of the said HBO television series.
The Pheidole drogon and Pheidole viserion species have distinctive dorsal spines that may help them support their massive heads. In a press release, the team said the research used phylogenetic results and X-ray microtomography, or micro-CT, to identify body structure of the said ants found in the tropical rainforest of New Guinea, an island located west of the South Pacific Ocean.
Biologist Evan Economo explained that their research is one of the first studies in the ant taxonomy to use the cutting edge imaging technique. And while the method has been recently gaining popularity in different fields of science, he added that it is still rare to use it in this way.
After studying the Pheidole genus–with about a thousand species spread throughout the world–the authors have discovered the two dragon-like species with distinctive large spines protruding from their dorsal plates. Scientists previously thought that the spiky appearance of the species was a defense mechanism. But after using the micro-CT, they discovered that the neck spines of the soldier ants of the newly discovered species contain muscle fibers, and they suggest that it help the ants hold up their massive heads.
In addition to the Game of Thrones ants, the group also published a related study on the same date in PLOS ONE about the two new species of ants found in Fiji. In contrast to their dragons-inspired relatives in New Guinea, the Pheidole ululevu and Pheidole kava of the Fijian islands have a much less dramatic appearance. They were named after their large head and a mildly narcotic drink from the Pacific islands, respectively.
The GOT ants study is titled ‘Inordinate Spinescence: Taxonomic Revision and Microtomography of the Pheidole cervicornis Species Group (Hymenoptera, Formicidae),’ and it is accessible online via the PLOS ONE open-access page.