99-Million-Year-Old Fossil Opens Killer Feature Of ‘Hell Ants’


  • An amber recovered from Myanmar captured the moment a helmet grabbed the victim
  • It helped researchers confirm how helmets use their mouths
  • Why they became extinct after millions of years of success remains a mystery

Investigators uncovered a 99-million-year-old amber who captured the moment a “helmet ant” grabbed his victim with his horn-like mandibles. Thanks to the amber, the researchers were able to confirm how helmets used their unique mandibles.

Cretaceous ants are one of the first ants known to science. They are known for their unique sight-shaped mandibles and the horny appendages on what would be their foreheads. These are features that researchers say are no longer found in other living species.

Despite having so far identified 16 half-species, they remain scientifically the mystery to scientists and this mystery includes how helmets used their unique features.

“Since the first helmet ant was discovered about a hundred years ago, it’s been a mystery why these extinct animals are so distinct from the ants we have today,” studied lead author Phillip Barden of the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) said in a news release.

In a new study, a team of researchers from NJIT, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the University of Rennes in France had the unique opportunity to find out more about half ants, thanks to a rare fossil that was recovered from Myanmar. This particular amber captured the very moment that a helmet had a Caputoraptor elegance, which is a relative of cockroaches.

Barden says that such a fossil that behavior, especially predation, is “very rare.” By studying it, the researchers were able to confirm how helmets used their mouthparts.

“Our findings confirm the hypothesis that half ants caught other arthropods between mandible and horn in a way that could only be achieved by articulating their mouthparts in an axial plane perpendicular to that of modern ants,” the researchers wrote.

Compared to modern ants that move their muzzles to side, or from side to side, helmets move their horn-like mandibles up and down to essentially pin their prey against the horny appendages.

The team was also able to confirm that helmets belong to one of the first branches of the “ant evolutionary tree” and that the elongated horn function evolved twice in helmets.

But the question of why hell-ant species are extinct despite being nearly 20 million years quite successful. The predatory traits of half ants are also believed to have disappeared about 65 million years ago during the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event.

“More than 99% of all species that have ever lived are extinct,” Barden said. “While our planet is undergoing its sixth mass extinction event, it’s important that we work to understand the extinct diversity and what certain strains may hold while others fade away. I think fossil insects are a reminder that even something so ubiquitous and familiar as ants have become extinct. “

De to study is published in Current Biology.