Great to see Alex back, and with such a beautiful shot. I had a little post ready, so I figured I would go ahead and put it up. Maybe it will give Alex a little bit more time to recuperate after what sounds like a tough journey back.
One of the things I have discovered about studying a diverse arboreal group in a system that allows such easy access to the canopy is that undescribed species are relatively plentiful. In my main cerrado site, I have 17 Cephalotes species and 3 of them are undescribed. In my fist study at a second site, just 30Km down the road, a fourth new species showed up. All of these species are exciting in their own way, but one is particularly striking. I thought I would share a few shots with you. The main point of interest that I wanted to talk about is the coloration, and particularly the eyespots in the gyne.
Why might these eyespots be there? Well, evidence suggests that Cephalotes are quite distasteful, so the best explanation is that this is some kind of aposematic coloration. While eyespots are remarkably rare in ants as a whole, they are quite common in Cephalotes. In my experience, though, they are rarely this pleasing to the human eye (or at least this myrecologist’s eyes). After mating, Cephalotes gynes roam the canopy in search of a suitable cavity to start their colony. Hanging out in trees for a couple of years, I have seen this searching behavior many times, but never managed to get a decent shot of it (unlike more talented photographers).
The soldier caste has a similar coloration to the gynes. While this could be nonadaptive developmental spillover from the gyne (it fades out in smaller members of the soldier caste), it may also have some adaptive value. Soldiers, the relatively rare and expensive sterile caste, shuttle between the colony’s various nests on a daily basis, so the eyespots may help ward off possible predators while they do it.
As for what I should call this gorgeous ant, I have a few ideas, but I would love to hear what you all think in the comments.