Singapore biologist captures never-before-seen cannibal 'T-Rex' ants

Singapore biologist captures never-before-seen cannibal 'T-Rex' ants
The Tyrannomyrmex rex (T.Rex) ants
PHOTO: Gordon Yong / National University of Singapore

An ant named after the fierce, carnivorous dinosaur Tyrannosaurus rex has recently been discovered in Singapore by biologists Mark Wong and Gordon Yong. They stumbled across an entire colony of it while doing an ant diversity survey in a forested area in Mandai.

According to National Geographic, the Tyrannomyrmex rex (T. rex for short) had eluded scientists since 2003, when entomologist Fernando Fernandez revealed that a single dead ant from Malaysia represented a never-before-seen ant genus.

The ant's tiny jaws reminded Fernandez of the stubby arms of Tyrannosaurus rex and other carnivorous dinosaurs, hence its name.

They say that in the years since, only a handful of Tyrannomyrmex ants have been found in India, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and probably the Philippines, all of them deceased and incidentally collected from leaf litter.

Wong explained to Gizmodo the reason behind its naming, "Tyrannomyrmex would actually translate into "tyrant ant" (Tyranno is Latin for "tyrant"; myrmex is Greek for "ant").

Despite being named after a pre-historic savage carnivorous killing machine, the ants are actually shy and reserved. This probably contributes to why these ants are so difficult to find in the first place.

Both scientists collected an entire live colony and observed them for 10 days. The colony consisted of 13 adult workers, two worker pupae, one male pupa, nine larvae and five eggs, according to Live Science.

The male pupa was unfortunately eaten up when he turned into an adult, but it is something "not unheard of", Wong told LiveScience.

In an experiment in which Wong tried to determine the ants' diet, he found out that they pretty much run away from anything.

He was quoted by National Geographic as saying, "I had a good laugh when I saw them respond in this manner to little millipedes, mites, smaller ants, and basically whatever prey I tried to offer them. They wouldn't even get close to honey-and only gently prodded [a] honey droplet with their antennae."

Below is the footage of the ants that Wong has provided to National Geographic.

They are found to be picky eaters, and can resort to cannibalism if needed. During the captivity, one of the male pupa emerged as an adult, but the other ants immediately ate him. Wong told Live Science that it was "unfortunate", but not unheard of.

After the experiment, the ants are euthanised and preserved for further studies. Both scientist had gone back to Mandai to collect more samples, but to no avail. However, Wong remains positive.

"It's a pretty exciting time to be an ant scientist who enjoys 'scraping it out' in the dirt," he told National Geographic.

akosasi@sph.com.sg

 

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