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Environment & Science

Dragon ants: Another species gets a 'Game of Thrones’ treatment

Masako Ogasawara
Masako Ogasawara
Masako Ogasawara

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Who said dragons aren't real? Well, dragon ants, anyway. A new study out this week identifies two new ant species, and scientists are seeing similarities to the mythic creatures.

Obviously, these are not your common house ants. You'll have to go to New Guinea to find them, and it's their unique curved, hooked and vertical spikes that earned them the names Pheidole drogon and Pheidole viserion.

Drogon and Viscerion are the character Daenerys Targaryen's dragons from the popular TV show "Game of Thrones."

This isn't the first time a species has received the "Game of Thrones" treatment. In 2013, a new species of slug was named after the Khaleesi herself, Daenerys Targaryen, the mother of dragons. It's nothing new that science has been taking cues from pop culture. Both Johnny Cash and David Bowie have spiders named after them.

For more on the paper and its findings on these dragon ants, Eli Sarnat, author of the study, joined the show to discuss.

Interview Highlights

What's so special about this species?

This genus Pheidole is commonly called the bigheaded, because of that soldier ant [with] these massive heads that look almost impossible for the body to support, and they absolutely dominate the Earth. They're on every continent in almost any habitat. So, almost anywhere you go on Earth, you're going to find these Pheidole ants.

Why is this study important?

The study was trying to get at this basic question, why do these ants have these spines? and I'll cut to the chase, we still don't know, and a lot of work needs to be done. But one thing I noticed was that some of these soldiers had spines where the minor workers, the ones with the little heads of the same species, only had these little nubs on their shoulders. And I thought to myself, "Well, perhaps these spines on the shoulders of the soldier workers are actually providing more space for muscle attachment that can support these very large heads."

Dragon Ants

What about their names, how did they get their really awesome "Game of Thrones" names?

It's a bit of a funny story, I guess. I was trying to figure out a good name for some of these and I asked my wife for help, and she came up with a great classic Latin name meaning "branched spine," which very nicely describes one of the species. And I ran it by my co-authors, and they said, "No, that's too boring. These are remarkable ants, we need to come up with something better." And we're all, "Game of Thrones" — which we spent a lot of time talking about the ins and outs of all the intricate plots — and one of the authors, Evan, said "Oh, that black one has to be Drogon," which is one of Daenerys Targaryen's dragons, and it's jet black just like this ant.

And if you look at the ant, it's true that the spines on the back do look like wings, and then these shoulder spines do look like claws. So, I think dragon ants is actually a pretty fitting common name for them.

To hear the full interview, click the blue play button above.