Generations from now, our descendants will pause in their work harvesting food for their giant, hyper-intelligent ant overlords and rue the work of one Rajendhran Rajakumar. He is the head of a research team at Canada’s McGill University who have exploited existing leftovers in ant DNA to create giant-headed, so-called supersoldier ants in the lab, proving without question that none of the researchers has ever watched the movie Them!
The process began when eight of the bizarre creatures (pictured above) turned up in the wild, in a sample collected from a colony in Long Island, N.Y.. Despite looking like the product of a drunken Photoshop bender, the supersoldier ants, with their distinctive oversized noggins, are actually believed to be an evolutionary throwback to an earlier stage of ant development. As MSNBC’s LiveScience points out, it’s similar to the odd human being born with a vestigial tail.
The supersoldier ants were previously known to occur regularly among some ant species in the American Southwest and Mexico, where they defend the colony from army any raids by — believe it or not — blocking off tunnels with their enormous heads. Yep, they’re basically portable, six-legged barricades. And they say Mother Nature has no sense of humor.
Since the supersoldier ants didn’t normally occur in New York, scientists decided to see if they could figure out what was responsible for their turning up there. They discovered that ant development was controlled by adult ants, who could apply hormones to larvae to adjust whether it became a queen, worker, or soldier. During this process, the researchers applied a chemical that acts like the ant hormones, causing larval soldiers to advance even further into the supersoldier state. Ehab Abouheif, the senior researcher of the McGill study, explained that:
It’s been known for a long time that these kinds of slips occur, and they are viewed as the Barnum and Bailey of evolution. What we are showing for the first time is there is this ancestral potential sitting there, and when poked by the environment it can really unleash this potential that can power evolution.
In addition to revealing the mechanism of how supersoldier ants are created, the experiment helps strengthen the theory that the supersoldier ants date back to the earliest common ant ancestor, some 35 million to 60 million years ago. Evolutionary biologist Corrie Moreau told LiveScience that the study could help provide insights beyond just the ant family:
The question becomes, ‘Do all insects use a similar pathway as was found in the big-headed ants or is this something special to this group?’ Regardless, it suggests that we should look for evolutionary conserved pathways across the tree of life.
At press time, calls to the lab were met by the sound of alarms, gunfire, and distant screams of “My god, the ants! The ants!”
Header art courtesy of alexanderwild.com. Thanks to Den Shewman for the story tip.