New Cretaceous fossils shed light on the early evolution of ants


Share post:

Ants comprise one lineage of the triumvirate of eusocial insects and experienced their early diversification within the Cretaceous. The success of ants is generally attributed to their remarkable social behavior. Recent studies suggest that the early branching lineages of extant ants formed small colonies of either subterranean or epigeic, solitary specialist predators.

New Cretaceous fossils shed light on the early evolution of ants
This is a general dorsal view of holotype of new late Cretaceous worker ants Ceratomyrmex ellenbergeri 
[Credit: WANG Bo]

The vast majority of Cretaceous ants belong to stem-group Formicidae and comprise workers and reproductives of largely generalized morphologies, and it is difficult to draw clear conclusions about their ecology, although recent discoveries from the Cretaceous suggest relatively advanced social levels.

Remarkable exceptions to this pattern of generalized morphologies are ants with bizarre mouthparts in which both female castes have modified heads and bladelike mandibles that uniquely move in a horizontal rather than vertical plane. Haidomyrmecines have puzzled evolutionary biologists as to their specific ecology, with the mandibles apparently acting as traps triggered by sensory hairs in a way distinct from that of modern trap-jaw ants.

Not all ants cooperate in social hunting, however, and some of the most effective predatory ants are solitary hunters with powerful trap jaws. Models of early ant evolution predict that the first ants were solitary specialist predators, but discoveries of Cretaceous fossils suggest group recruitment and socially advanced behavior among stem-group ants.

New Cretaceous fossils shed light on the early evolution of ants
This is a life-like reconstruction of Ceratomyrmex ellenbergeri 
[Credit: YANG Dinghua]

Dr. WANG Bo of the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology, Chinese Academy of Sciences and his colleagues describe a new bizarre ant, Ceratomyrmex ellenbergeri, from 99 million-year-old Burmese amber that displays a prominent cephalic horn and oversized, scythelike mandibles that extend high above the head. These structures presumably functioned as a highly specialized trap for large-bodied prey. The horn results from an extreme modification of the clypeus hitherto unseen among living and extinct ants, which demonstrates the presence of an exaggerated trap-jaw morphogenesis early among stem-group ants.

Together with other Cretaceous haidomyrmecine ants, the new fossil suggests that at least some of the earliest Formicidae were solitary specialist predators. In addition, it demonstrates that soon after the advent of ant societies in the Early Cretaceous, at least one lineage, the Haidomyrmecini, became adept at prey capture, independently arriving at morphological specializations that would be lost for millions of years after their disappearance near the close of the Mesozoic. The exaggerated condition in the new fossil reveals a proficiency for carriage of large-bodied prey to the exclusion of smaller, presumably easier-to-subdue prey, and highlights a more complex and diversified suite of ecological traits for the earliest ants.

The study has been published online in Current Biology.

Source: Chinese Academy of Sciences Headquarters [May 30, 2016]



Related articles

Ancient example of modern global warming was too hot for tiny, important ocean creatures

During another time in which Earth warmed rapidly in conjunction with a spike in atmospheric carbon similar to...

Hairy snail discovered in 99-million-year-old amber

International researchers, including Senckenberg's Dr. Adrienne Jochum, have discovered a new species of land snail in an approximately...

New dinosaur discovered in China shows dinosaurs grew up differently from birds

A new species of feathered dinosaur has been discovered in China, and described by American and Chinese authors...

New fossil shows four-legged fishapod that returned to the water

A meme has been circulating online during the pandemic featuring Tiktaalik roseae, the iconic, four-legged "fishapod" that first...

Early dinosaur breathed like a bird

Pelecanimimus polyodon from the Lower Cretaceous (125 Ma) is the first predatory dinosaur found in Spain. An international...

Prehistoric egg shells provide clues to dinosaurs’ evolution from cold- to warm-blooded creatures

From the time that dinosaur fossils were first discovered, these creatures have fascinated scientists and laypeople alike. In...

Ostrich-like dinosaurs from Mississippi are among the world’s largest at over 800 kilograms

Ostrich-like dinosaurs called ornithomimosaurs grew to enormous sizes in ancient eastern North America, according to a study published...

Diandongosuchus—the strange-faced transitional phytosaur

The Triassic Period was a time of fantastic reptilian experimentation. Among archosaurs, there were the armored aetosaurs, the...