99M-year-old ‘hell ant’ trying to eat a cockroach found entombed in amber

If you thought dinosaurs were scary, wait until you hear about “hell ants.”

Experts have discovered a fossilized piece of amber encasing the 99-million-year-old insect with its jaws about to devour an ancient cockroach.

The findings, published in the scientific journal Current Biology, detail the final moments of the lives of the “hell ant” (haidomyrmecine) known as Ceratomyrmex ellenbergeri and the ancient cockroach, known as Caputoraptor elegans. The study also tells the tale of how the “hell ant” used its features, including its “bizarre, but deadly, scythe-like mandibles” to pin the prey against its “horn-like appendages,” according to a statement from the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

A fossil recently recovered from the age of the dinosaurs is giving scientists the most vivid picture yet of how one of the most enigmatic and fearsome groups of ants to exist once used their uncanny tusk-like mandibles and diverse horns to successfully hunt down victims for nearly 20 million years, before vanishing from the planet. (Credit: NJIT, Chinese Academy of Sciences and University of Rennes, France)

A fossil recently recovered from the age of the dinosaurs is giving scientists the most vivid picture yet of how one of the most enigmatic and fearsome groups of ants to exist once used their uncanny tusk-like mandibles and diverse horns to successfully hunt down victims for nearly 20 million years, before vanishing from the planet. (Credit: NJIT, Chinese Academy of Sciences and University of Rennes, France)

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“Fossilized behavior is exceedingly rare, predation especially so,” said the study’s lead author, NJIT assistant professor Phillip Barden in the statement. “As paleontologists, we speculate about the function of ancient adaptations using available evidence, but to see an extinct predator caught in the act of capturing its prey is invaluable.”

Barden continued: “This fossilized predation confirms our hypothesis for how hell ant mouthparts worked … 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.”

Phylogeny and Cephalic Homology of Hell Ants and Modern Lineages. (Credit: NJIT, Chinese Academy of Sciences and University of Rennes, France)

Phylogeny and Cephalic Homology of Hell Ants and Modern Lineages. (Credit: NJIT, Chinese Academy of Sciences and University of Rennes, France)

The fossilized piece of amber was found in Myanmar.

“Hell ants,” which lived during the Cretaceous period for nearly 20 million years, were only discovered about 100 years ago, making the discovery all the more invaluable, Barden noted.

“Since the first hell ant was unearthed about a hundred years ago, it’s been a mystery as to why these extinct animals are so distinct from the ants we have today,” he explained. “This fossil reveals the mechanism behind what we might call an ‘evolutionary experiment,’ and although we see numerous such experiments in the fossil record, we often don’t have a clear picture of the evolutionary pathway that led to them.”

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Since the initial discovery, 16 species of hell ants, all which have lengthy mandibles and horns, have been discovered, LiveScience reported.

Though the hell ant did not eat the cockroach, Barden told LiveScience it likely would have stung its prey “to paralyze it.” It then may have used its offspring and siblings as a “social digestive system,” similar to modern Dracula ants, effectively eating the offspring in a practice known as non-destructive cannibalism to eventually devour its prey.

Further research is needed to provide answers on what caused these hell ants and others like it to go extinct, while modern ants have thrived.

“Over 99% of all species that have ever lived have gone extinct,” said Barden. “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. I think fossil insects are a reminder that even something as ubiquitous and familiar as ants have undergone extinction.”

Experts continue to make new discoveries from the wonders of the ancient world encased in amber. In August 2018, the fossilized remains of a 99-million-year old beetle were also discovered in Myanmar.

In December 2018, experts uncovered insects trapped in amber 130 million years ago, at the exact moment in time the insects burst through their eggs.

Earlier this year, researchers discovered a 100-million-year-old slime mold and a lizard leg perfectly preserved in amber from a tree in Myanmar. In March, a pair of 99-million-year-old cockroaches were found preserved in amber, also from Myanmar.

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