Giant fossil ants linked to global warming


Share post:

Four paleontologists, including two at Simon Fraser University, have discovered the fossil of a gigantic ant whose globetrotting sheds light on how global warming events affected the distribution of life some 50 million years ago. 

A fossilized giant ant compared in size to a dead humming bird [Credit: SFU]

The Proceedings of the Royal Society B, a British scientific journal, has published online today (May 4) their study Intercontinental dispersal of giant thermophilic ants across the Arctic during early Eocene hyperthermals. 

The authors are Bruce Archibald and Rolf Mathewes from SFU (British Columbia, Canada), David Greenwood from Brandon University (Manitoba, Canada) and Kirk Johnson from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (Colorado, USA). 

They describe a new fossil species of giant ant, which they’ve named Titanomyrma lubei. This winged queen ant lived in the Eocene Epoch about 50 million years ago. It had a body just over five centimetres long — comparable to a hummingbird — a size only rivaled today by the monstrously large queens of an ant species in tropical Africa. 

Archibald found the ant in a drawer when visiting Johnson at the Denver Museum. He says: “What is surprising is that this ant scurried about an ancient forest in what is now Wyoming when the climate there was hot like the modern tropics. In fact, all of the closely related fossil giant ants have been found in Europe and North America at sites that had hot climates.” 

The researchers also looked at the habitats of the largest modern ants, and found that almost all live in the tropics, indicating that there might be something about being big that requires ants to live in hot temperatures. 

During the Eocene Epoch, many plants and animal species migrated between Europe and North America via continuous land across the Arctic, bridging the two continents. But the mystery is how did these ancient giant ants pass through a temperate Arctic climate — too cool for them? 

The researchers suspect that the key is in the brief, but intense episodes of global warming that happened around this time. They appear to have created periodic opportunities for hot climate life to pass between continents through the Arctic. Archibald calls them brief openings of a physiological gate to cross the physical land bridge. 

He notes that these findings will help scientists gain a better grasp of the impacts of global warming on life. He says: “As the Earth’s climate changes, we are seeing tropical pest species extend their ranges into mid-latitudes and dragonflies appear in the Arctic. Understanding the details of how life forms adapted to global warming in the past will be of increasing importance in the future.” 

Source: Simon Fraser University [May 03, 2011]



Related articles

In the Footsteps of Giants

Eighty-four-year-old Sheldon Johnson never imagined that once he began digging, it would be so difficult to stop. In...

Thousands of artefacts discovered at lost medieval city in Poland

Bone combs, iron knives, ornate bourgeois and knight's belt fittings, coins - are some of the artefacts discovered...

Study finds earlier peak for Spain’s glaciers

The last glacial maximum was a time when Earth’s far northern and far southern latitudes were largely covered...

Long-term study reveals deep Greenland Sea is warming faster than world ocean

Recent warming of the Greenland Sea Deep Water is about ten times higher than warming rates estimated for...

Earliest-known treeshrew fossil found in Yunnan, China

Treeshrews are widely considered a "living model" of an ancestral primate, and have long been called"living fossils". Actual...

NASA mission provides closest ever look at dwarf planet Ceres

A NASA mission led by UCLA professor Christopher Russell has released new images of the dwarf planet Ceres,...

Nestos Valley: An Ecological Treasure

The River Nestos flows into Greece from Bulgaria and is the natural boundary between the administrative regions of...

Work on Giza Plateau development project in full swing: Antiquities minister

Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany toured on Thursday work on the Giza Plateau Development Project and said...