Meet a rodeo ant. The little ant on the big one’s back is a queen of a species discovered in Austin, Texas. It has the right mouthparts and head shape to grip the waist and ride on queen ants of the species shown here. — ALEX WILD
My former lover is an entomologist. We spent gobs of time exploring our world, giddily overturning rocks to see if any critters were beneath, and if so, who? We both experienced a massive dopamine surge when we’d find someone’s home, akin to those who feel the rush of coins cling-clanging from the random payoffs of feeding & yanking on the one-armed bandits. While my relationship did not last, my urge to peek beneath rocks remained.
This may also be the case with Alex Wild, who is a former field collaborator of my former lover. One day, Alex was taking a break from his work at the urban field station, Brackenridge Field Laboratory, in Austin, TX. That is well trodden ground for entomologists and within a stone’s throw from the city’s concrete jungle.
Alex was flipping over rocks and ding, ding, ding – he hit the jackpot! A miniature queen ant was atop the back of a queen of a different species. The diminutive rider’s mouthparts were wrapped around the host ant’s waist like a vise grip. Further analyses shows a lock and key type of fit with its Pheidole species queen host.
Examples of such tiny queen piggyback riding ants in this world are exceedingly rare. There are less than a handful to date from across the world. Alex has since coined the common term for them as “rodeo ants” and his discovery of the mouth-clamping Solenopsis species has yet to be named scientifically. Taxonomists are quite reluctant to name ant species with only single queen specimens and no worker specimens available to describe. A related Solenopsis rodeo queen ant species was found in 1992 in Florida and researchers waited 14 years to name it after no others of its kind were found.
Alex was determined to find more of his rodeo ant for proper recognition of the species and urged students at the station to overturn rocks. And ding, ding, ding! The jackpot was hit again!
But wait! This rodeo ant was riding a different Pheidole species queen and sure enough, when the rodeo ant was put under the microscope, its differences from the first discovered rider were stark. Yet another species had been found at the Brackenridge Field Laboratory! Eureka!!
I like to think that the habit of looking under rocks is a gift bestowed to Alex from my former lover from their time in the field together and that is a special connection I share with the serendipitous discoveries of these small gals, from a small location, in our small world. I am riding on a vicarious high. I also like to think that Alex’s subsequent search for more ant rodeo ants by students has spawned a whole new generation of rock-look-beneathers and who knows what sort of discoveries the future may yield.
Whatever the case may be, let’s not forget to enjoy “The Bare Necessities” of life:
Wherever I wander, wherever I roam
I couldn’t be fonder of my big home
The bees are buzzin’ in the tree
To make some honey just for me
When you look under the rocks and plants
And take a glance at the fancy ants
Then maybe try a few
The bare necessities of life will come to you
They’ll come to you!
[NOTE: These Solenopsis rodeo ant queens may have evolutionarily shed producing their own worker caste and may pilfer food supplies from their Pheidole host’s workers instead.]
You may better appreciate the extraordinary nature of these finds from Science News.