Archaeology horror: 99 million-year-old ‘hell ants’ discovery reveals gruesome history

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The fossil captured a 99 million-year-old “hell ant” (Ceratomyrmex ellenbergeri) in the act of attacking its prey. A rare discovery, it provides unprecedented evidence for how these extinct insects once hunted with their scythe-like mandible and horn-like headgear. One particular fossil was found preserved in amber and found in Myanmar.

Along with the hell ant was found its prey: an extinct relative of the cockroach.

Similar to countless other species of hell ant, C. ellenbergeri has a pair of deadly jaws that snap upwards in a vertical motion.

This is contrary to the jaws of modern-day ants, whose mouths move horizontally.

Also, unlike their contemporaries, the hell ants have horns protruding from their head.

The fossil is important because it is the first piece of evidence recorded that proves the insect used their headgear to hunt, snapping their jaws to pin their prey against the horn.

C. ellenbergeri are believed to have become extinct some 65 million years ago along with the dinosaurs.

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Dr Phillip Garden, from the New Jersey Institute of Technology in the US told BBC Science Focus about the full extent of the discovery’s significance.

He said: “To see an extinct predator caught in the act of capturing its prey is invaluable.

“This fossilised predation confirms our hypothesis for how hell ant mouthparts worked.


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“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.”

Dr Garden and his team think that the early ancestors would have first gained the ability to move their mouthparts vertically.

They say it is likely that the diverse horns evolved at a later stage.

To date, 16 hell ant species have been identified.

Some of them were particularly gruesome, with horns and serrated teeth.

One species is even believed to have impaled its victims on a horn that was reinforced with metal.

The team now hopes to find more ancient ant fossils around the world.

They aim to one day fully realise why hell ants went extinct while their modern-day equivalents thrived and survived.

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