Panda ant [Euspinolia Militaris]
The Euspinolia Militaris (also called panda ant – first described in 1938 in Chile) is a member of the Mutillidae family, part of the Hymenoptera order, which includes such as wasps, bees and ants.
While the coloration of the panda ant is beautiful and resembles the coat of China’s giant panda bear, it serves a much more important function: as warning coloration to predators.
The sting of this wasp is incredibly painful, giving it and its close relative, the velvet ant, the nickname of cow killer (can kill a cow within 6 to 10 painful stings). The poison contained in the stinger has cytotoxic activity, i.e. it damages the body’s cells. They do not represent a danger to humans unless there is an allergy to its toxins. In this case, there is a risk of anaphylactic shock.
Male panda ants do not look anything like their wingless female counterparts. This phenomenon is known as sexual dimorphism, where the males of this species are several times larger than the female and have wings. This wasp also has an extremely thick exoskeleton that protects it from predators, allows it to invade nests to deposit its eggs and to help retain its moisture in the harsh environment it lives in.
The female and male ants behave in the same way, and they have the same body patterns. The panda ants do not have queens, workers, and drones like real ants. These insects grow approximately up to a length of eight millimeters and two to three millimeters tall.
It is native to the central coastline of Chile and Argentina, however, it has recently been spotted in parts of Mexico and in the southwestern United States. These insects prefer to live in mild climate environments with sandy-gravelly free-draining soils (in which they can dig a burrow) and are often seen near coastal regions or in deserts. Unlike other insects, panda ants do not live in colonies but are solitary animals. The panda ant is thermophilic which means that they are more active after sunset when the temperatures cool.
The panda ant has an interesting mating ritual; the male wasp carries the female on top of his wings while they are mating. Additionally, this species undergoes holometabolous development with a pupal stage.
The female panda ant is a solitary ectoparasitoid wasp who deposits her eggs underground, in the nest of other wasps or similar insects as it is developing. These eggs then hatch and devour the larvae or pupa of the other insects as their first meal. Usually, the Euspinolia militaris lays its eggs in the nests of other solitary insects so that they have a high survival rate.
While the female panda ant can lay up to 2000 eggs every year, this species is on the verge of extinction. Though a considerable amount of eggs to sustain their survival, unfortunately, they are prone to predators that eat a good number of the young panda ants after they hatch due to their bright colors. In case these ants survive, many can live up to 2 years, which is to a certain extent old for an insect as small as an ant.
When adults these insects feed exclusively on pollen and nectar. At the larval stage instead, they feed on other larvae. To be precise, the female lays eggs along with those of other Hymenoptera.
Scientists are also interested in many other interesting facts about this insect. The female panda ant is very active during the day, while the male is primarily a nocturnal animal. Additionally, both the males and females of this species have a structure called a stridulitrum on the posterior portion of their bodies that they use to make a chirping sound when they become alarmed.
- [Photos] Credits: Javier Gross (CC BY-NC). Chris Lukhaup (CC BY-NC).
- [Video] Panda Ant (Velvet Ant) from the family of Mutillidae in Costa Rica. Costa Rica Nature Photography (YouTube).