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New York's 'horrific' supersoldier ants

Scientists are fascinated by the sudden appearance of monstrous ants with giant, mutated heads in Long Island

New Yorkers recently had a scare of sorts when some big-headed "supersoldier" ants showed up on Long Island. But before you prepare to bow down to our new insect overlords, here's what you should know about these strange, top-heavy insects:

What is a supersoldier ant?
A rare genetic anomaly. Roughly 1,100 species of six-legged crawlers comprise the ant genus Pheidole. Aside from the queen, most colonies are divided into two castes: Worker ants and soldier ants. But a genetic quirk sometimes produces ants in a little-known third caste, known as supersoldiers, whose heads and mandibles are many, many times larger than normal.

And they showed up in New York?
Yes. Usually supersoldiers are confined to the American Southwest and Mexico. But recently, the warrior bugs were spotted in a wild colony in Long Island, N.Y. "Unfortunately, the New York supersoldiers were killed by other ants before their behavior could be studied," says Max Eddy at Geekosystem.

What do these supersoldiers do?
Other than looking imposing, the supersoldiers' enlarged heads actually help the ants take on specific roles — such as blocking tunnels during enemy ant raids, says Eddy. Plus, enlarged mandibles can be "handy for breaching seeds harvested by worker ants." 

But do ants still need these supersoldiers?
Not necessarily. This mutation is a "throwback to an ancestral state, one that no longer shows up within their species" except by accident, says Wynne Parry at Live Science. It's like when humans are born with tails, or chickens hatched with teeth. "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," says Ehab Abouheif, whose team looked into why the supersoldiers suddenly appeared in New York by studying the colonies' genetics and environment.

What have researchers learned about supersoldiers?
The role of an ant is usually programmed into it when it's still in the egg, and the "key" to becoming a soldier or supersoldier "is controlled to a large extent by one chemical inside the egg," called the juvenile hormone, says Victoria Gill at BBC News. Scientists discovered that any ant is susceptible to the mutation if the juvenile hormone is triggered at just the right moment — even if it happens accidentally, as it did in the New York case. The study certainly offers a "fascinating" look at evolution, said Geekosystem's Eddy. "But, perhaps more importantly, it has introduced the world to the horrific world of supersoldier ants." 

Sources: BBC News, Geekosystem, Live Science

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