With massive trap jaws that extended above their head and a bizarre horn-like protrusion between their eyes, a newly discovered ant species preserved in 99-million-year-old amber is unlike any species alive today. The peculiar insect is thought to be a representative of the very first ants to have evolved, and as such, gives researchers a fascinating glimpse into how the early insects lived.
An earlier study on ants discovered in Burmese amber found evidence of separate species fighting, leading to the researchers concluding that they may have been from separate colonies, and thus provide the best evidence of early sociality. This latest fossil, which has also come out of Burma, adds to the picture of these early ant colonies. The morphological features, including the highly adapted mouth and head, have led the team to suggest that this species may be an example of an early species of ant that displayed solitary hunting behavior.
They argue that the oversized, scythe-like mouthparts, which are not unlike the trap jaws of some living ants, would have made it a highly specialized predator of large-bodied prey. The hugely exaggerated jaws and bizarre horn on the top of its head seem to suggest that the ants were ignoring smaller, more plentiful prey, and were instead focusing on bigger insects, which they carried back on their own. According to the researchers, the fact that the mouth works in a horizontal plane also indicates that the worker ants were indeed solitary. The study has been published in Current Biology.
The new species has strange mandibles that extend above their heads. WANG Bo
Ants today are known – along with bees, wasps, and termites – as the ultimate social animal. Living in colonies sometimes millions strong, they have complex social systems in which individuals have their own singular role that plays into a larger organization of doing what is best for the entire colony. This impressive social behavior is often credited as to why they have been so successful; it is often said that ants are probably the most numerous insects on Earth. While some living species of ant hunt largely on their own, most modern species hunt cooperatively in a highly effective manner.
But studies have suggested that the early progenitors of ants, which came about during the Cretaceous period (before their rise to dominance), most likely formed small colonies of largely solitary predators that went out foraging on their own. During this early period of their evolution, the insects were actually incredibly rare, representing just 1 percent of all known insects from that time. The recent discovery of numerous ants preserved in amber dating between 99 and 100 million years old gives a rare insight into how the early insects probably organized themselves.