Researchers discover extremely rare "T. rex" ant colony alive in Mandai forest

Claudine Rigal
Mai 19, 2017

National Geographic Young Explorer and entomologist Mark Wong and his colleague Gordon Yong, an entomologist at the National University of Singapore (NUS), stumbled across the first recorded live colony of Tyrannomyrmex rex (T. rex) ants in March 2016 while surveying the forested Mandai area, said the May 16 report.

What's more, the ants were found on land where rambutan, banana and durian orchards used to be.

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

A single dead Tyrannomyrmex Rex ant was found in Malaysia in 2003, prompting its classification as a new species.

Eating fellow ants has been one of several multiple hygiene strategies to "prevent the spread of pathogens on corpses", Wang, who was not involved in the study, said. Researchers tried to offer the insects food samples from typical ant diets - everything from mites to millipedes to honey - but the ants wouldn't even approach the offerings.

Since them, a few other Tyrannomyrmex ants have been found in India, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and probably the Philippines - but all of them have been found dead. When faced with a threat, the ants curl up and freeze instead of fighting.

Despite more than 20 years passing since the first example was found, very little is known about the ants.

Besides the 13 adult workers, the T. rex colony consisted of two worker pupae, one male pupa, nine larvae and five eggs.

By setting up artificial colonies, the researchers were able to test their reactions to a range of stimuli.

During the study, a heroic individual stung the millipede when it intruded the cluster and brood within the nest tube over multiple "curled-up" workers.

It turns out that, besides being an occasional carnivore, the T. Rex ant isn't really that scary (but hey, neither was the Tyrannosaurus Rex itself).

There's of course plenty more to find out about the ants and their habitat, which Wong noted has not been sufficiently studied - pieces of moist, rotting wood submerged in soil. But strangely enough, the colony cannibalized its sole male, leaving the researchers perplexed about the act.

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