Scientists Discover Fungus Farming Ghost Ant Species in Brazil

Posted on January 6, 2014

Cyatta abscondita

Scientists at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History recently discovered a new genus and species of attine ants in Brazil that create fungal gardens. The new species was named Cyatta abscondita, which means "hidden ant." The ant was informally named "ghost ant" by its discoverers. Ted Schultz, curator of ants at the museum, and Jeffrey Sosa-Calvo, graduate student at the University of Maryland and Smithsonian pre-doctoral fellow, found the ants' nests in Brazil after finding a single misidentified specimen in a collection in the Museum of Zoology at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil.

The well hidden ants have very intricate nests as deep as two meters below the surface. The scientists say the ants create a network of tiny fragile tunnels and chambers that can be less than a millimeter in diamter. The fungus gardens created by the ghost ant hang upside down in columns from the ceilings of their hidden underground chambers. The ant fungal garden chamber below was created by the ants.

fungal garden chamber dug by Cyatta abscondita

The Smithsonian reports that the new species is considered a "living fossil." It is expected to reveal ways in which early attine ants lived.

Sosa-Calvo says in a statement, "Through our DNA analysis, we learned that the new species is very closely related to the first ant ancestor that began growing fungal gardens. Given this relationship, we can infer that some of C. abscondita's unique physical and behavioral characteristics hint at what the first agricultural ants and their predecessors looked and acted like."

A description of the new species was described here in PLoS One.

Photos: Jeffrey Sosa-Calvo, Smithsonian (top)/ Ted Schultz, Smithsonian (second)

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