Nature has a new contender for the most badass creature: a new species of prehistoric “hell ant” with a metal-infused horn used to puncture and suck the blood of its enemies.
Scientists have recently described this new species (Linguamyrmex vlad) in the journal Systematic Entomology. The “vlad” part of the ant's name is a nod to the 15th-century prince Vlad III, better known as Vlad Dracula, due to its gory dietary habits.
The genus roamed Earth during the Late Cretaceous around 98.8 million years ago. It measures just a few millimeters long and was most likely a worker ant. Just like most ant species from the Cretaceous, these hell ants belong to an early species that are distinct from the modern lineage of ants.
This ferocious little specimen was found embedded in amber at a mine in Myanmar's Hukawng Valley, a place famous for its amber deposits. Researchers from New Jersey Institute of Technology and the American Museum of Natural History used X-rays, light microscopy, CT scans, and other imaging techniques to inspect the hell ant’s impressive head weaponry.
Its paddle-shaped horn was likely reinforced with metal particles – yes, metal. This, the researchers say, would have helped it cope with the stress and strain it sustained when being used to “pin and potentially puncture soft-bodied prey.”
Although not seen quite like this, other insects are known to sequester metals to reinforce body parts, namely using calcium, manganese, zinc, and iron. It’s most likely "Vlad the hell ant" used these basic metals too. The horn is also lined with trigger hairs, similar to the ones used by trap-jaw ants to shut their jaws closed at lightning speed. However, these ants were very different to the modern-day ants you see in your garden.
The hell ant also had tube-like channels between its jaws, most likely because it was used to suck liquids like hemolymph, a fluid equivalent to blood in most insects. The remains of this ant were found near to a large beetle larva, also trapped in amber, which the researchers believe could have been its dinner (until it was so rudely interrupted).
Vlad the hell ant now lives on in the American Museum of Natural History. The species joins six other species of ancient haidomyrmecine hell ant, four of which were discovered in Myanmar, and the other two being from current-day France and Canada.