Ant freaks of nature

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conjoined Acromyrmex ants, collected in Botucatu, Brazil (credit: Rodrigo Feitosa)

Via Brazilian myrmecologist Rodrigo Feitosa comes this shot of conjoined leafcutter ant sisters. Two fully grown adult ants dorsally fused from abdominal segments 3 onward.

Incredibly, this developmental oddity was observed carrying leaf fragments in a foraging trail. It’s not as if being a two-headed monster impeded the myrmidon work ethic.

In its normal state, the species looks like this:

Acromyrmex balzani

24 thoughts on “Ant freaks of nature”

  1. Wow! I’d never heard of this sort of stuff in nonvertebrates..

    I don’t know why. This is pretty fascinating, though.

  2. Wow! I assume that they were joined as larvae too? It’s odd enough for vertabrates, and it almost seems impossible for arthropods… how did they manage to molt?

    1. No reason to assume that, really, since the adult form is the result of totally denovo tissue generation. Transcription error during early development of adult form could have resulted in “twinned” structures as far as I understand the pupation process.

      “Time’s fun when you’re having flies.” — Kermit the Frog

      1. no, while the adult structures are formed by the larvas imaginal discs and histoblasts in the pupa, the anterior-posterior and dorso-ventral axises and the specification of the segments are only established once in drosophila, in embryogenesis. the leg imaginal discs are located where the legs will form, same goes for antenna, genital and wing discs, and histoblasts should be similar (anterior histoblasts -> anterior inner tissues) so to have conjoined ants, two embryonic axises are required, and a conjoined organism with conjoinded larva results 🙂

        I think a conjoined ant maggot should be viable, because they are fed, cleaned and moved around by their sisters. And the imago doesn’t molt, so a freshly pupated ant looks like an aged one. so all stages which led to this imago couldn’t move around and care for themselves anyway, and it could only be selected away if the sisters did not care for it, so the chance to get adult conjoined imagos from conjoined larvae may be high.

  3. SO cool (I said “OMG!” outloud several times whilst looking at those first two photos). BioBob, that’s a very interesting tidbit.

    I would have loved to see some video (heck, even photos) of the ant(s) at work…I wonder if one walked backwards and the other forwards, or if they walked together, sideways. Awesome.

  4. That’s pretty amazing. I’m having trouble picturing how it/they coordinated movement. Is there any footage of them in life?

  5. Marc "Teleutotje" Van der Stappen

    I must say, a very remarkable find. Like a few already sayd: a video and a possible explanation would be very interesting. However, about how they can come into exsistence, maybe BioBob could be wright. But for this, there must be some reason why this happened???

    Also, I think they are already fused from the petiole on. The postpetiole is deformed and looks more like a gastral segment.

    Great find. Something new to research in myrmecology!!!

    1. If you really are interested just google “imaginal disc” and “histoblast”. There is a world-sea of information out there; I wish this was around when I was in grad school.

  6. Ed Wilson has a preserved Pheidole worker (that was collected while foraging) that was sort of the opposite — One head and thorax and two perfectly formed gasters.

  7. Hi everyone!

    These ants were collected a long time ago. The only observation on these ants alive was already mentioned by Alex. They were found in a typical Acromyrmex foraging column, then collected and send to Beto Brandão in São Paulo.

    According to Beto, this finding was published by the colleague Nelson Bernardi from Botucatu in a brief communication submitted to a Brazilian periodic, but I didn’t find it.

    Like most of you, since the first time I saw this conjoined oddity I wonder how could it survive and become a functional worker.

    Beto has a theory about the development of this ant. According to him, this “duplication” process can be more common than we think, at least in some stages of the life cycle of leaf-cutter ants. It could explain, in part, the exponential increase in the ergonomic phase of the colonies, which can contain millions of workers. If it is true, the ants in the photo can be the only known example of a developmental error during this duplication process.

    As Marc said… it can be something new to research in myrmecology!

  8. I suppose polyembryony is widespread across the parasitoid Hymenoptera, so I can see it as a mechanism for producing an exponential increase in formicid workers and the occasional partially divided embryo being raised to an adult. Raising a giant larva that them divides into two smaller adults in the pupal stage, though, I find harder to imagine. It would seem to have to happen within the prepupa to avoid a hopeless tangle of legs and tagmata.

  9. Brilliant find.

    Thx to Rodrigo Feitosa for the explanation and the intriguing history behind this oddity (in the comments).

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  13. Wow, the twins are famous!

    Just an addition: I took these photos with the help of the colleague Dalton Amorim, at the request of Dr. Beto Brandão.

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