Amber is something with a lot to love. Despite being just fossilized tree resin, it easily becomes a beautiful gemstone. Extracts of amber were used as medicine date back to Hippocrates, and amber necklaces are thought by many to have psychic healing powers. It makes a beautiful name. There seems to be nothing bad one can say about amber … unless one is a prehistoric insect or small creative unfortunately coated and preserved in a drop of it. Even then, it will be cherished by scientists because it gives them a look at what life looked like millions of years ago. In the case of the prehistoric creatures in this story, it looked like “hell ants” wearing protective helmets, butting with deadly horns and killing and chopping up their prey with scythe-like jaws. Even better … it was caught mid-chomping with its prey between the jaws. Thanks, Amber!
“This fossilized predation confirms our hypothesis for how hell ant mouthparts worked … 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.”
Phillip Barden, assistant professor at NJIT’s Department of Biological Sciences and lead author of a hell ant study published in the journal Current Biology, describes both the immensity of this amber-preserved discovery and the gratitude that these killing machines were ants and not car-sized dinosaurs (photo here). He was describing a newly identified 99-million-year-old prehistoric ant species named Ceratomyrmex ellenbergeri found in Myanmar with a prehistoric extinct roach in its jaws known as the Caputoraptor elegans.
“Fossilized behavior is exceedingly rare, predation especially so. As paleontologists, we speculate about the function of ancient adaptations using available evidence, but to see an extinct predator caught in the act of capturing its prey is invaluable.”
No one was feeling sorry for the cockroach – seeing how a prehistoric creature would have fed itself is an extremely rare find. This also helped the paleontologists speculate why no ants today have features like these. They believe this unique vertical jaw movement was an “evolutionary experiment” that obviously didn’t catch on – the Ceratomyrmex ellenbergeri did not survive the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event 65 million years ago while others did, becoming the ancestors of modern ants. Barden ends the press release with a philosophical reflection – and warning:
“Over 99% of all species that have ever lived have gone extinct. As our planet undergoes its sixth mass extinction event, it’s important that we work to understand extinct diversity and what might allow certain lineages to persist while others drop out. I think fossil insects are a reminder that even something as ubiquitous and familiar as ants have undergone extinction.”
Will we someday end up encased in amber?