Scientists Discover an Ancient Bio-Metallic Vampire Ant
A 98-million-year-old amber specimen collected from an excavation in Myanmar, formerly Burma, has yielded a new species of 'hell ant' with a spiky metallic mouth which it used to suck its victims’ blood.
American biologist, theorist, naturalist and author E.O. Wilson estimates that the total number of individual ants alive in the world at any one time is between one and ten quadrillion with a total biomass “equal to the entire human race.” According to a World Info article that works out to around 1 million ants for every human on Earth. And while today we get the odd bite, we can be thankful we didn’t have to deal with their ancestors.
Tropical fire ants (Solenopsis geminata) get their name from their powerful sting, look harmless in comparison to Linguamyrmex vladi. (CC BY 3.0)
Hell Ant’s ancient arsenal
According to a recent report in Geology In this new prehistoric ant, called Linguamyrmex vladi, belongs to a to a stem-group known as 'hell ants' or haidomyrmecines, a now extinct race that lived in the Cretaceous period, characterized by weird “vertically moving mouthparts with a curious metal component in its jaws.” Hell ants went extinct before the common ancestor of all modern ants appeared and instead of having downward-facing mandibles it “sported giant blade-like scythes that pointed upward - a feature you won't find in any ant living today,” says Phillip Barden from New Jersey Institute of Technology who lead the team of scientists who analyzed the ant.
These spiky jaws were surrounded by trigger hairs that caused its jaws to snap shut and a horn-like appendage or 'paddle' above its jaws thumped down on its prey as the upward-facing mandibles pierced the prey's body. Bardem, who studied the ant type, told reporters that he also “discovered a tube-like channel between the mandibles” which he thinks were used to suck the blood from prey.” The mandibles and paddle of Linguamyrmex may have functioned to puncture soft-bodied prey and feed on the haemolymph," the team wrote in their paper.
Profile view of a Linguamyrmex vladi worker. (CC BY 4.0)
Revealing the specimen’s vampiric tendencies, it was discovered in amber “next to a large larva of a beetle" which is thought to have been “a perfect soft-bodied prey for a liquid-sucking predator such as this one,” according to the scientists’ report. Although the jaws of the ant were not embedded in the larva the researchers noted that its placement is "consistent with this being prey.”
Half ant, half metal killing machine
Now, we’ve all watched science fiction movies where alien predators, often half-robotic and half-organic hunt prey, generally us. Well, the scientists were faced with such life form when they X-rayed the ant. The underside of that paddle horn on its head was found to be “reinforced with metal particles” telling the researchers that the creature had the ability to collect trace metals from its food and redistribute in towards the parts of its body that needed reinforcement.
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The ancient ants could process metals from food and use to reinforce its body. (Image: © P. Barden, H.W. Herhold, D.A. Grimaldi)
Lead scientist Barden told New Scientist:
"Insects are known to sequester metals – in particular, calcium, manganese, zinc, and iron – in ovipositors and mandibles, to increase strength and reduce wear. And having a metal-infused spike would have allowed the hell ant to withstand the wriggling of its prey if it missed a hit with its jaws, or perhaps made it easier to jam its spikes into the soft-bodied food.”
Barden added: “Until we find a specimen with the prey item trapped, which is probably a matter of time, we're left to speculate.”
Also speculating as to the purpose for this ant having gathered metals, Vincent Perrichot at the University of Rennes published an article in Current Biology detailing another horned “hell ant” called a ‘unicorn ant’. He believes, “Probably the metal helps to keep the horn undamaged.” And Barden agrees with this, telling reporters that “It makes sense to reinforce that [appendage] since the horn must have had to withstand repeated impacts from the mandibles.”
Top image: Photo of “Hell Ant” in amber. Profile view of a Linguamyrmex vladi worker head. Paleontology Department of the American Museum of Natural History, United States. Source: (CC BY 4.0)
By Ashley Cowie