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Hell Ant Discovered From 99-Million-Year-Old Amber Fossil

Fossilized behavior is exceedingly rare, predation especially so. As paleontologists, we speculate about the function of ancient adaptations using available evidence, but to see an extinct predator (hell ant) in the act of capturing its prey is invaluable.

– Phillip Barden , Lead Author of Study


Not everyone knows that the tiny ants which belong to Hymenoptera are the most numerous insects on Earth. Irrespective of the extinction of many ant species over millions of years, there are around 10,000 species of ants on this planet now. A recent discovery of hell ant has made into the journal named ‘Current Biology’ with remarkable findings. This beautiful discovery was made public through the journal on August 6, 2020.


Amber Fossil Shows 'Hell Ant' Was Unlike Anything Alive Today | Smart News | Smithsonian Magazine
Hell ant ( Ceratomyrmex ellenbergeri ) predating on nymph of an extinct species close to cockroach ( Caputoraptor elegans ).


The Discovery Of Hell Ant

In a recent discovery in Myanmar (formerly Burma), a hell ant attacking its prey has been found in an amber fossil. This species of ants from the Cretaceous Period is thought to have become extinct about 65 million years ago, the same time around which dinosaurs became extinct. Hell ants are surely one of the primitive species of ants in this world.

This discovery was possible because the predator ant got stuck in the tree sap before it could finish its meal. When the sap became fossilized to amber over millions of years, the scientists could discover and analyze this beautiful species now.

This discovery has opened a huge area of study for entomologists as well as paleontologists. It is an achievement for the paleontologists who have discovered the species of Ceratomyrmex ellenbergeri in a 99-million-year-old fossil that too while actively feeding on another insect. The prey insect is believed to be a nymph of an extinct relative of cockroach, namely Caputoraptor elegans.


Evolution of Ants

The hell ant discovered in the amber fossil is unlike most of the insects which we can witness in the present world. The feeding habit of the predator compels us to think about ant evolution. The hell ant pins its prey to the horn-like paddle with the help of its lower mandibles moving vertically. The scientists think that in addition to this, the hell ant delivered an immobilizing sting, leaving the prey immobile.

Linguamyrmex vladi is another recently discovered hell ant which is thought to have used the metal-reinforced horn to impale prey. This mode of predation works by feeding on the hemolymph of the prey.

The NJIT team anticipates that the ability to move mouthparts vertically, like humans, must have been gained by the hell ants before the diverse horns. However, the insects which co-exist with us now, have only allowed horizontal movement. The hell ant in the fossil comprised of spiky mouthparts probably to drink their victims’ blood.


New study sheds light on evolution of hell ants from 100 million years ago | EurekAlert! Science News
Phylogeny and Cephalic Homology of Hell Ants and Modern Lineages


It is also speculated that the reason behind the hell ants becoming extinct was their specialized predatory behavior.


Future Prospect

This discovery is a result of Barden’s team in the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), the U.S.A., The Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the University of Rennes in France. The team has successfully provided this invaluable information through the amber fossil is looking forward to finding more similar fossils. The more the evidence, the better the ability and chances for the team to reach a concrete reason behind hell ant extinction. People surely ponder as to what led to the extinction of hell ant while their modern-day equivalents thrived.



Reference :

Phillip Barden et al. Specialized Predation Drives Aberrant Morphological Integration and Diversity in the Earliest Ants. Current Biology, published online August 6, 2020; DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2020.06.106


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