“Due to the darkness of the rainforest and the translucent body parts of the tiny ants, they were nearly invisible,” Frohschammer said in a press release.
As she looked more closely, however, Frohschammer knew she had found something special. Some of the females she had gathered had unusual coloration around their eyes—dark patches that reminded Frohschammer of the eye patches worn by some pirates.
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A search of the research literature revealed that Frohschammer’s initial hunch was correct: Not only was this an entirely new species of ant, the coloration was unique as well. The researchers recently reported their find in the journal ZooKeys.
But unlike Captain Hook, these ants don’t live on a pirate ship. Instead, Frohschammer believes that the ants live their entire lives buried underground in almost complete darkness. Their eyes reflect their lives in the dark, as they contain an abnormally small number of light receptors.
If the pirate ants live in the dark and can’t see very well, this makes it unlikely that the eye patch is used either as a signal during mating or as a way for individuals to recognize other members of their species, Frohschammer noted in the study.
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Her current hypothesis is that the eye patch serves to confuse and distract predators. The dark stripe seems to divide the ant’s tiny, translucent head in two, which could make predators think that such a ridiculously small morsel isn’t worth their time. Frohschammer still isn’t sure what, if any, predators might be consuming them.
It wouldn’t be the first time a pirate tried to conceal buried treasure.