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USU Scientists Discover Wasp Mimicry Complex

Joe Wilson
North American velvet ants from Utah, with their bright orange hair.

On Monday, researchers unveiled a study which identifies the velvet ant as one of the world’s largest mimicry complexes. Organisms use mimicry to protect themselves by imitating more lethal species.

Joe Wilson, a Utah State University biologist who worked with a team of researchers on the project, said that the velvet ant is actually a species of wasp. They are covered in hair that was adapted to ward off potential predators.

“Many velvet ants are covered with various lengths of bright-colored hair. These wingless wasps are parasitic wasps; they search the ground for nests of other bees and wasps, and they’ll dig into those nests and parasitize the larvae of the host,” he said. “We looked at a total of 350 different velvet ant species and in different parts of North America, you see a similar pattern in them. In this paper, we described eight distinct color patterns, or eight distinct mimicry rings that are geographically isolated from each other.”

Velvet ants combine a stinger half the length of its body and a tough exoskeleton to defend themselves. Wilson said that the color of the velvet ants often has more to do with geography than genetics.

“Most of the time, a certain species looks different that its closest relative, has a different color pattern than its closest relative,” he said. “But it shares a color pattern often with the species that live in the same general region. In a local area you can train predators more quickly to avoid you if you look like other things that are dangerous.”

Most velvet ants found in Utah have a bright orange color.