The moment frozen in time reveals how “hell ants” have adapted over time to hunt other insects.
French, American, and Chinese scientists found a fossil that shows an ant that lived 99 million years ago, in the Cretaceous period, at the very moment when it captured its prey.
The amber preserved an ant of the species Caputoraptor elegans, belonging to the extinct Suidamyrmecinae (known as hell ant), devouring its victim.
The finding provides evidence of the behavior of these prehistoric animals, who used their scythe-like jaws in a vertical motion to trap prey against their horn.
According to the researchers, this type of ants disappeared due to ecological changes that occurred 65 million years ago, after the mass extinction event that extinguished the dinosaurs.
“This fossilized predation confirms our hypothesis for how hell ant mouthparts worked,” said Phillip Barden, the study’s lead author and professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. “The only way for prey to be captured in such an arrangement is for the ant mouthparts to move up and downward in a direction unlike that of all living ants and nearly all insects.”
According to Barden and his team, adaptations to capture prey probably explain the rich diversity of jaws and horns seen in the 16 species of hell ants identified so far. While some of them used elongated horns to hold prey, others used it to pierce them.
“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,” Barden said. “As our planet undergoes its sixth mass extinction event, it’s important that we work to understand extinct diversity and what might allow certain lineages to persist while others drop out.”
The article with the results of the analysis of the amber, found in Myanmar, was published this week in the journal Current Biology.