Musical fame can be fleeting, but the name Radiohead will live on as long as humans and a species of South American ant share the planet. The band has been honored by having a newly discovered silky ant named after them, ensuring that generations hence, entomologists will know their name.
Sericomyrmex radioheadi was discovered as part of a comprehensive study of the genus Sericomyrmex, a group of fungal-farming ants widespread across South and Central America. Its description has been published in Zookeys, along with two other newly identified species.
"We wanted to honor their music," said Ana Ješovnik, a graduate student at the Smithsonian, in a statement. "But more importantly, we wanted to acknowledge the conservation efforts of the band members, especially in raising climate-change awareness."
Far from making its home in fake plastic trees, it inhabits the very real trees of the Venezuelan Amazon, where it farms fungi for food. Although the origins of such fungal agriculture date back 30 million years, the Sericomyrmex genus (literally “silky ants”) are only around 4 million years old. In that time, they have evolved so rapidly, they have been compared to other famously diversifying groups of animals, such as African freshwater fish.
The consequence of this rapid diversification is that what appears to be a single species may in fact be several that are still so similar, they are hard to tell apart. Future research may lead to the identification of one or more species currently considered representatives of Sericomyrmex radioheadi. We can only hope these will be sufficient to allow one to be named after each band member.
Sericomyrmex radioheadi is more than just another ant that happens to bear a cute name. Female members of the species have a white, crystal-like layer that has never been seen before in other ants. Its function is unknown, but may serve as a protection against parasites. Other Sericomyrmex cultivate bacteria that produce chemicals that deter bacterial species more damaging to the ants' precious fungal gardens. Sericomyrmex radioheadi don't seem to do this, yet their gardens appear to thrive invader-free. It's possible the crystal-like material is their answer, although Ješovnik and her co-authors don't know how.
As with all rainforest species, clear-felling of Sericomyrmex radioheadi's habitat could leave them high and dry, but we can hope these ants will long creep through the Venezualan rainforests. Should its habitat be destroyed however, Sericomyrmex radioheadi may at least look forward to life in a glasshouse now that it is known and distinctive enough to draw preservation efforts.
An electron microscope image of the crystal-like layer of Sericomyrmex radioheadi females. Ana Jesovnik