It seems as if Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons from HBO’s hit Game of Thrones have fans all over the place. Recently, scientists have named two new species of especially scary-looking ants Drogon and Viserion, after two of Daenerys’ babies in the popular TV show.
Phiedole drogon worker ants and Phiedole viserion worker ants are called “dragon ants” because it’s hard not to see the striking resemblance upon close inspection. The ants, however, do not breathe fire.
Phiedole drogon a menacing-looking ant
The scientists who discovered them focuses on their strange, dragon-like spine. The study that details the finds of the two completely unrelated species – one in the rainforests of Papau New Guinea and the other in Fiji – explains that the ants reminded the scientists of the dragons from Game of Thrones.
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Study authors Georg Fischer, Eli Sarnat, and Evan Economo used a brand-new 3D-imaging technology “to help identify and document several new ant species,” a statement said. The study, containing two research papers, was published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One.
The 3D-imaging technology is very similar to the technology used in CT scans utilized in hospitals, though the scientists increased it “to a much higher resolution suitable for smaller objects, such as an ant,” the statement detailed.
“This is one of the first studies in ant taxonomy to use micro-CT,” said Economo, one of the study’s authors and researcher at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University, or OIST. “While this method is gaining popularity in different scientific fields, it is rare to use it in this way.”
Ants are everywhere
As ants are “arguably the greatest success story in the history of terrestrial metazoan” (i.e. pretty much any multicellular animal on Earth, including humans) according to entomologist Ted Schultz, the world is absolutely teeming with them. As such, it can be incredibly difficult to discover a new species. Scientists generally rely upon sketches, pictures, drawings, and even written descriptions to help them figure out what’s what.
“If you are working in the bush in Africa and find an ant that you want to identify, it is really difficult to fly all the way to a museum in Europe or the U.S. to see collections of already known species,” said Fischer, who is also with the OIST. “This way you can download the virtual ant, make measurements and compare it to the specimen you are trying to identify.”
The journey the scientists took in order to find these new species reads like something out of an adventure book. “New Guinea is prehistoric. It’s got to be one of the wildest places on Earth,” said Sarnat. “There’s no road to where I was collecting. You had to take a plane and land on a grass strip on a mountain. It’s very Jurassic Park-like.”
Why so spiky?
These particular ants are known as major workers and their role is to predominately do jobs that the minor workers can’t cope with. As a result of this, they have unusually large heads that contain and support their big jaws. Sarnat hypothesized that the spikes may have something to do with the extra muscles needed to support the ant’s large head.
“Certainly it seems that over time these spines did develop to help against predation, but it could’ve been a scenario where they first evolved as adaptations for head support and then once they existed, they got kind of co-opted for defense against predators,” said Sarnat.
So why the Game of Thrones reference? One member of the research team, Evan Economo, is a massive fan of the popular series, and suggested naming one of the ants “drogon” due to its jet black and spiky appearance. “Since we are all big fans of the books and the series, we thought it’d be a fitting tribute,” said Economo.