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Rare ant may help solve some mysteries of social evolution

COLUMBUS, Ohio Last fall, ecologists at Ohio State University cracked open an acorn they had found in an Ohio park and discovered a colony of extremely rare ants.

They had uncovered Leptothorax minutissimus, an ant species that has been found in only four other areas of the eastern United States. The researchers found the acorn at a Columbus metro park the first time the ant has been found in Ohio.

"What makes this find special is the lifestyle of these ants," said Joan Herbers, an ant expert and a professor of evolution, ecology and organismal biology at Ohio State.

L. minutissimus is a unique social parasite in that it lives entirely within the colonies of other ant species. But unlike parasitic slave-maker ants, which raid and virtually destroy the colonies of unsuspecting hosts, L. minutissimus appears to move in and live amiably with its host. Such organisms are called inquilines.

This relationship intrigues Herbers, who is planning a new study to learn more about these unique ants.

The first and only written description of L. minutissimus is from 1942, when researchers found a colony in Washington, D.C. Since then, colonies have been found at sites in West Virginia, Indiana and on Long Island. And these colonies of anywhere from 50 to 100 ants thrive in the tiniest places old acorns, hickory nuts, hollow twigs and grasses.

"They're like gold when you find them," said Herbers, who is also dean of Ohio State's College of Biological Sciences.

These tiny ants that grow to around 3 millimeters long about the length of the writing tip of a ball point pen are a rich golden color. But it's how they interact with their hosts that make them a real scientific find. Studying these behaviors closely may give researchers insight into some of the riddles of social evolution.

While L. minutissimus is a parasite, it doesn't appear to stage the bloodthirsty coups common to its slave-maker ant relatives. Rather
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Contact: Joan Herbers
Herbers.4@osu.edu
614-292-1627
Ohio State University
28-Jan-2004


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