An article about how scientists created supersoldier ants in the lab
When ants with oddly big heads were spotted on Long Island in New York, scientists were stumped. “We found monstrous looking soldier ants in a species called Pheidole morrisi that we knew were not normal [for] the colony,” says Ehab Abouheif, a biologist at McGill University in Canada. Abouheif set out to find the origin of the bizarre bugs, releasing his results earlier this year.
P. morrisi colonies consist of soldiers that defend the colony and workers that gather food and raise the young. But the big-headed ants Abouheif found looked remarkably like supersoldiers found in eight of the other 1,100 Pheidole species. These supersoldiers protect their nests from invaders by blocking entrances with their massive heads.
Whether an ant becomes a worker or a soldier is determined by a growth hormone produced when the ant is a larva. By exposing P. morrisi larvae to high doses of a similar chemical, Abouheif was able to reproduce the odd superants he found on Long Island.
His results led Abouheif to think that the entire Pheidole genus must have evolved the ability to produce supersoldiers millions of years ago. If something triggers larvae to produce too much growth hormone, supersoldiers can accidentally pop up in species that today usually lack these oversize fighters.