Fossil discovery shows how ancient ‘hell ants’ hunted with metal headgear
Researchers discover the fossil of a ‘hell ant’ preserved in amber. (Credits: NJIT / SWNS) A new fossil discovery shows how ancient ‘hell ants’ hunted with metal headgear and vertically-grasping pincers.
The 99-million-year-old amber fossil has pristinely preserved the hellish predator as it embraced its unsuspecting final victim, an ancient relative of the cockroach.
The ancient encounter recovered from Myanmar, offers a detailed glimpse at how the prehistoric hell ants once used their killer features to exterminate prey.
It also reveals vital information about how the evolutionary process enabled the ants to accrue their remarkable killing kits.
Perhaps at the pinnacle of its hellish armoury were deadly, scythe-like mandibles which operated in a vertical motion to pin prey against their long horns.
Among the recently-identified ants is a species named Linguamyrmex vladi, or ‘Vlad the Impaler’ by Dr Phillip Barden and his colleagues in 2017.
The 16 species of hell ants evolved their jaw dropping head and mouth weaponry in an integrated process helping them to trap their ancient prey, without hurting themselves.
The researchers say the earliest hell ant ancestors would have first gained the ability to move their mouthparts vertically.
This, in turn, would integrate the mouthparts and head in a way that was unique to this extinct lineage.
Dr Barden, of New Jersey Institute of Technology, US, said: ‘Integration is a powerful shaping force in evolutionary biology… when anatomical parts function together for the first time, this opens up new evolutionary trajectories as the two features evolve in concert.’
He added: ‘The consequences of this innovation in mouthpart movement with the hell ants are remarkable.’
Vlad the Impaler, discovered by Barden and colleagues in 2017, was thought to have used a metal-reinforced horn on its head to impale prey — a trait potentially used to feed on the internal liquid (hemolymph) of insects.
He continued: ‘While no modern ants have horns of any kind, some species of hell ant possess horns coated with serrated teeth, and others like Vlad are suspected to have reinforced its horn with metal to prevent its own bite from impaling itself.’
The ancient fossil recovered from Myanmar, offers a detailed glimpse at how the prehistoric hell ants once used their killer features to exterminate prey. (Credits: NJIT / SWNS) Researchers say the rare fossil demonstrating the hell ant’s feeding mode offers a possible explanation for its unusual morphology.
They also said the finding highlights a key difference between some of the earliest ant relatives and their modern counterparts, which all feature mouthparts that grasp laterally.
The hell ant lineage are suspected to have vanished along with many other early ant groups during periods of ecological change around 65...