WASHINGTON, Oct. 1 (UPI) -- Occasionally, humans will assume different identities -- accents, mannerisms, clothing -- in an attempt to stealthily blend in with separate groups. It's a technique largely employed by secret agents and members of law enforcement, usually employed to glean information or ensure a drug charge sticks, but it's safe to say the survival of the human species doesn't depend on subterfuge.
The same can't be said of mirror turtle ants, however, a newly discovered species of ant that locates food sources by assuming the identity of its neighbors and following them to their spoils. As a new paper, published this week in the journal The American Naturalist, demonstrates, Cephalotes specularis are a species of spies, capable of looking and acting like their neighbors.
Dr. Scott Powell, an assistant professor of biology at the George Washington University, discovered the mirror turtle ants while observing a colony of regular turtle ants (Crematogaster ampla) in Brazil. Powell noticed what appeared to an invading ant, and was surprised when the nearby turtle ants -- a normally aggressive species -- neglected to attack.
"I did a true double-take when I first saw this new species," Powell explained in a press release. "As I turned away, after seeing what appeared to be large numbers of host foragers, it registered that a couple of the ants I had just laid eyes on were not quite like the others. Turning back around, I managed to re-find the few peculiar ants in the masses of host ants, and everything followed from there."
Powell soon noticed there were several of these almost identical ants, blending in seamlessly with the rest of the colony. Further analysis confirmed that these ants were indeed members of a separate species and that they were present in almost every turtle ant colony he observed.
"Beyond the fascinating biology of this new ant, we appear to have a rare window into the early stages of the evolution of social parasitism, before the parasite has lost much of its free-living biology," Powell said. "This promises to help us better understand the general pressures that tip a species towards a parasitic lifestyle."
Powell is planning to return to Brazil in 2015 to continue studying the mimicry techniques of the mirror turtle ant.