German researcher Christian Rabeling was digging up ant colonies on a college campus in Brazil when he found something unexpected—certain ants appeared smaller and shinier and had wings. Rabeling soon realized that those strange ants belonged to a previously undocumented species, a parasite that was feeding off the nutrients of the already familiar ants.
In a study published today in the journal Current Biology, Rabeling and a group of scientists, including Ted Schultz, curator of ants at the National Museum of Natural History, claim that the very existence of the parasite ants provides new evidence supporting a controversial theory on evolution.
At the center of the new findings is an evolutionary concept called sympatric speciation, the possibility “for a species to split into two species without any geographic separation,” Schultz says. “That’s usually been criticized and usually been rejected. It’s a very hard thing to prove.”
But Rabeling and Schultz believe they’ve done it.
The ant colony they studied was situated under a group of eucalyptus trees at São Paulo State University in Brazil. The familiar ant, Mycocepurus goeldii, is a fungus-farming species, meaning it grows fungus and relies on it for nutrients. This ant has been observed throughout Brazil and in neighboring countries. But within that one colony on the university campus exists a parasite ant, Mycocepurus castrator.
Rather than help grow fungus, the parasites spend their lives eating the food reserves and reproducing. Sometimes they go undetected; other times, mobs of the farmer ants identify and kill them.
Read the full, original story: This ant species may support a controversial theory on evolution