The study explains the strange appearance of "hell ants"

The study explains the strange appearance of "hell ants"
The study explains the strange appearance of "hell ants"

About 99 million years ago, an ancient "hell ant" caught a cockroach, which he was going to eat, but did not have time to do it and got stuck in tree resin. In our time, scientists have discovered amber, in which this very ant has survived. The find helped them understand why the "hell ants" needed strange horns.

Found fossil / © NJIT / SWNS

"Hell ants had two features that are not found in any living species: highly specialized oblique mandibles and horns, which are present in a place that is essentially a forehead," - said study author Philip Barden. For a long time, the nature of these features remained a mystery, but the fossil found revealed how the jaws of ancient insects worked: they moved them up and down to press the prey to the ground or to "headdresses", as scientists call them. The results of the study are published in the journal Current Biology.

Its authors compared the head and mouth morphology of Ceratomyrmex and several other hell ant species with similar datasets in living and other fossil species. They also performed phylogenetic analysis to establish an evolutionary relationship between Cretaceous and modern insects. He confirmed that the "hell ants" belong to one of the earliest branches of the evolutionary tree. Moreover, it turned out that the relationship between the morphology of their lower jaw and head is unique.

Barden's team suggests that the unusual structure of the mouth and the need to adapt the mechanism for capturing prey has led to the fact that different species of "hell ants" have uniquely shaped horns. Some insects, like the found Ceratomyrmex, appear to have crushed their prey with them, while others, like the discovered Vlad Tepes in 2017, were used to pierce their prey. Scientists noted that the unusual appearance of insects can be called an "evolutionary experiment", the origin of which is not yet known. The team is going to continue research and describe in more detail the structure of all types of fossil "hell ants" found recently.


She also noted that the amber discovered by the group is unique: it shows how ancient ants used their structural features to hunt and feed. “Seeing an extinct predator caught while eating its prey is priceless,” Barden added.

In addition, the find highlights important differences between modern insects and their ancient ancestors. Those disappeared about 65 million years ago, without passing on unusual features to descendants. However, studying them is extremely important because it may shed light on how living ants evolved adaptive mechanisms. In addition, the study shows that “even such ubiquitous and familiar creatures as ants were disappearing,” says Barden. This, in his opinion, is especially important now, during the sixth mass extinction.

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