Prehistoric "Hell Ant" Encased in Amber Seen Biting its Prey for Over 99 Million Years

Monday, January 11, 2021

(Photo : Vincent Perichot / Wikimedia Commons) Frontal view of a Ceratomyrmex ellenbergeri head. Specimen number SEC-BU39-004; Siegardh Ellenberger private collection, Germany Burmese amber, Earliest Cenomanian; Kachin State, Myanmar

A 99-million-year-old Hell Ant from the Cretaceous period is imprisoned in amber as it uses its scythe-like jaw and unusual headgear to bite its prey.

What are Hell Ants?

Ever since discovering the first 16 species of hell ants, paleontologists have suspected that the unique mandible operated vertically rather than today's ants that shut horizontally.

The recent discovery of Ceratomyrmex ellenbergeri fortifies paleontologists' theories on how the Creteacean-era hell ants thrived. 

According to an article by the Smithsonian, these ants have two distinct features that cannot be found in any living species today. The ant species had specialized scythe-like mandibles and various horns located on their forehead, says a paleontologist from the New Jersey Institute of Technology in an interview with CNN's Katie Hunt.

In a statement, Barden explains, "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."

He further says, "Fossilized behavior is exceedingly rare, predation especially so. 

A paper published in the journal Current Biology talks about how the hell ants confirm the hell ants' mandible articulation and the integration of its head capsules and mandibles. It also explains how the integration drove morphospace in early ant lineages.

As per The Washington Post, The findings came from a hell ant encrusted in amber as its feasts on a Capatoraptor elegans, an extinct ancestor of cockroaches. The amber was discovered in Myanmar in 2017.

Barden tells Newsweek, "Once the prey was gripped in this way, the ant most probably moved on to an immobilizing sting--we know that the stings of hell ants were well developed."

Upon discovery, Barden and his team theorize that as the cockroach nymph was paralyzed due to the hell ants' sting, it was then fed to hell ant larvae that had unspecialized mouthparts and could chew the unlucky prey normally.

After the larvae have ingested the prey, adults might have made small incisions in the larvae's soft bodies to drink their blood (hemolymph). Simply put, adult hell ants used their offspring as a social digestive system.

Hell ants are known as one of the earliest forms of ants that died out about 65 million years after roaming the planet for 20 million years.

According to Barden, "More than 99% of all species that have ever lived have gone extinct."

Since the first hell ants' discoveries roughly 100 years ago, scientists remain baffled by the distinct features of the Creteacean-era ants compared to their modern-day counterparts.

Scientists and researchers are hopeful that with the discovery of the 99-million-year-old prehistoric hell ant trapped in amber, more knowledge on how forms of the species survived mass extinction events.