The idea that prehistoric animals could be perfectly trapped in amber, preserved for millions of years, is not simply an element of dino-cloning scientific exclusives like “Jurassic Park”. On Thursday, scientists unveiled a monumental discovery about the ancient world embodied in the discovery of an “hell ant” trapped in amber, as it was in the process of swallowing a baby cockroach.
An ant heck, either haidomyrmecine, is a relative of modern ants, but with a critical difference: Instead of horizontal stripes biting their prey, the heck ant had vertical jaws resembling a scythe, which would drink its intended food against a horn in their head. The heck ants in question here managed to catch one The caper̵7;s elegant, an insect associated with modern cockroaches, but which, like the ant of hell itself, is now extinct.
“Hell ants are one of the earliest branches of life ants, and their lineage was raised to the ancestor of the most recent common ancestor of all living species,” said Phillip Barden, lead author of the study and an assistant professor at New Jersey Institute of Technology Department of Biological Sciences, told Salon by email. “This is no different from the relationship between extinct non-bird dinosaurs and the birds we have today.”
As the article in Current Biology explains, scientists are not sure why the unique vertical jaw type seen in hell ants no longer exists today.
“The ecological pressures and development requirements that led to the mandibular vertical joint are not yet known,” the authors write. “Also unclear are the conditions that led to the extinction of haidomyrmecines as they persisted for a period of at least 20 million years throughout present-day Asia, Europe and North America.” They note that the ants of hell may have been “susceptible to extinction during periods of ecological change,” although competition with other ants may also have played a role in their extinction.
The salon asked Barden to explain the greater importance of the study.
“This paper gives an explanation why it is that we see diversity in fossil data that is not very present today,” Barden told Salon by email. “At the same time, it also gives us a better picture of an extinct group of insects, which we hope we can use to better understand how and why extinction affects different roots.”
Barden also stressed that “although there are thousands of predatory species of ants, no ant lives to catch prey this way. That is, no modern ant possesses horns of any kind or mandible specialized in this particular way.” He also elaborated on what the ancient cockroach ancestor – who was young at the time he tried – must have proven to be the prey of a heck of an ant.
“The prey would have been essentially gathered around the neck by the elongated horn and mandibles of the hell ant, before receiving a stationary blow,” Barden told Salon. “We think the ants of hell may have had very fast muscle movements, something we see in some modern ant predators, so the mandibles of hell ants may have closed in on a very fast blow.”