Scientists Discover Ghostly New Species 80 Feet Underground

Leptanilla voldemort

Researchers at The University of Western Australia have discovered a new species of ant named Leptanilla voldemort, inspired by a Harry Potter character. Credit: Mark K. L. Wong, Jane M. McRae

New research conducted by the University of Western Australia has discovered a new species of subterranean ant that shares some traits with a well-known Harry Potter villain. The research, published in Zookeys, describes the new species Leptanilla voldemort as a pale ant with a slender build, spindly legs, and long, sharp mandibles.

Lead researcher Dr Mark Wong, a Forrest Fellow from UWA’s School of Biological Sciences, said its name (L. voldemort for short) paid homage to the dark wizard Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series.

“The fearsome antagonist in Harry Potter and the ant both have a ghostly and slender appearance, and live in the shadows,” Dr Wong said.

Discovery and Habitat

The ant was discovered in an ecological survey that documented animals living below ground in the arid Pilbara region in the north of Western Australia.

“Only two specimens of the new ant species were found, and both were collected in a net lowered down a 25-meter (82 feet) drill hole and retrieved by scraping against the hole’s inner surface,” he said.

There are more than 14,000 species of ants worldwide, but only about 60 of these belong to the genus Leptanilla.

“Unlike most ants, species of Leptanilla live in small colonies, usually comprising a queen and only a hundred or so workers, and nest and forage exclusively underground,” Dr Wong said. “Adapting to life in darkness, Leptanilla workers are blind, devoid of pigmentation, and measure between just one to two millimeters – not much larger than a grain of sand – allowing them to move effortlessly through the soil.”

Two Individuals of Leptanilla voldemort Collected in Pilbara

The two individuals of Leptanilla voldemort collected in Pilbara. Credit: Mark K. L. Wong, Jane M. McRae

Australia has one of the highest levels of ant diversity in the world – estimates range from 1,300 to more than 5,000 species – but L. voldemort is only the second Leptanilla species discovered on the continent.

“From what we know from the few observations of other Leptanilla species, and the highly specialized, sharp mandibles of L. voldemort, this new species is almost surely a predator, a fearsome hunter in the dark,” Dr. Wong said. “While the exact prey of L. voldemort remains unclear, other Leptanilla species are known to use their sharp jaws and powerful stings to immobilize soil-dwelling centipedes much larger than themselves, before carrying their larvae over to feed on the carcass.”

Reference: “Leptanilla voldemort sp. nov., a gracile new species of the hypogaeic ant genus Leptanilla (Hymenoptera, Formicidae) from the Pilbara, with a key to Australian Leptanilla” by Mark K. L. Wong and Jane M. McRae, 11 April 2024, ZooKeys.
DOI: 10.3897/zookeys.1197.114072

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