Two newly discovered ant species, Pheidole drogon and Pheidole viserion, have been named in honor of two of the fire-breathing, man-eating dragons in George R. R. Martin’s insanely popular book and television series A Song of Ice and Fire.
The new ant species were discovered in the tropical rainforests of Papua New Guinea, and were named after the fantasy series’ dragons due to the unique physiological features they share with the mythical winged creatures.
According to the PLOS One article announcing the new species, the ants are covered in massive spikes and spines that were previously believed to have been used in self defense. This study, however, has found that the spikes might serve a role in counterbalancing the weight of the ants’ heads:
Our findings suggest the pronotal spines of Pheidole majors, are possibly skeletomuscular adaptations for supporting their disproportionately large heads. The ‘head support hypothesis’ is an alternative to the mechanical defense hypothesis most often used to explain spinescence in ants.
The announcement of the new ant species also marks one of the first times that microscopic 3D scans have been taken of a new species, allowing entomologists and zoologists around the world to examine the physiology of the new ants in 360-degree minute detail.
Study co-author Evan Economo, head of the Biodiversity and Biocomplexity Unit at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University, stated in a university press release that this new imaging technology offers scientists rare opportunities to study animal anatomy up-close:
This is one of the first studies in ant taxonomy to use micro-CT. While this method is gaining popularity in different scientific fields, it is rare to use it in this way [...] In some ways it is better than the real thing, Because you can virtually dissect the specimen and examine internal structure on your computer. These new technologies can revolutionize the way we discover, document, and share information about new species, which is disruptive in an exciting way.
Aside from being stoked to have been named after some seriously awesome dragons, the ants should feel honored to have joined the illustrious club of animals named after science fiction characters, joining other homages de nerd such as the Yoda purpensis acorn worm and the Tetramorium jedi ant.