Ant Species Mimics Other Ant Species and Steals Their Food

Posted on October 6, 2014

Mirror turtle ant mimics turtle ant

Scientists have discovered a new species of ant in Brazil that can hide amongst another ant species. The ant uses its mimicry and stealthiness to steal food from the other ant species.

Members of the new ant species were found hiding in a colony of Crematogaster ampla (turtle ants) by Dr. Scott Powell, assistant professor of biology at the George Washington University. C. ampla ants are known for being hyper-aggressive, yet this foreign ant was right there with the C. ampla ants and was not being attacked.

Dr. Powell says in a statement, "I did a true double-take when I first saw this new species. As I turned away, after seeing what appeared to be large numbers of host foragers, it registered that a couple of the ants I had just laid eyes on were not quite like the others. Turning back around, I managed to re-find the few peculiar ants in the masses of host ants, and everything followed from there."

Dr. Powell and his team studied the amazing spy ants. They have been named Cephalotes specularis. The common name given is mirror turtle ant for the ant's ability to mimic the turtle ant species. Dr. Powell says the ants are the first known ant species to use visual mimicry to steal food from another ant species. The mirror turtle ant is pictured on the right in the above photograph with the turtle ant on the left. The mirror ant is copying the posture of the turtle ant.

The mirror turtle ant moves very carefully to dodge and avoid turtle ants so its scent is never detected. The mirror turtle ant can use its ability to blend in with the turtle ants to steal food directly from the turtle ant nest. They can also walk the turtle ants trails to food sources. The researchers found that 89% of turtle ant territories were parasitized by the sneaky mirror turtle ants.

A research paper on the new ant species was published here in The American Naturalist.

Photo: Scott Powell