Fossil of fearsome 'hell ant' that used tusk-like jaws to hunt its victims discovered in amber

A fossil of a hell ant consuming its prey (left), and an artist's conception of the encounter (right).
A fossil of a hell ant consuming its prey (left), and an artist's conception of the encounter (right).

A 99-million year old fossil of a "hell ant" is giving researchers a glimpse into the behavior of these fearsome ancient insects, a new study reports.

Encased in amber (tree resin), the fossil provides the most vivid picture yet of how hell ants once used their uncanny tusk-like mandibles and diverse horns to successfully hunt down victims for nearly 20 million years, before vanishing from the planet.

“Since the first hell ant was unearthed about a hundred years ago, it’s been a mystery as to why these extinct animals are so distinct from the ants we have today,” said study lead author Phillip Barden of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, in a statement.

“This fossil reveals the mechanism behind what we might call an ‘evolutionary experiment,’ and although we see numerous such experiments in the fossil record, we often don’t have a clear picture of the evolutionary pathway that led to them,” Barden said.

The findings were published recently in the journal Current Biology by researchers from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the University of Rennes in France. In the study, scientists unveiled the fossil of the the hell ant (official name: haidomyrmecine) as it embraced its unsuspecting final victim, an extinct relative of the cockroach known as Caputoraptor elegans.

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The reason Barden and the team see this as an evolutionary experiment is because of how the hell ant's feeding mechanism differs from that seen in the ants of today, which feature mouth parts that move together laterally, according to New Atlas. Conversely, the hell ant, which is thought to have vanished around 65 million years ago, moves its mandibles in a vertical fashion.

“Over 99% of all species that have ever lived have gone extinct,” said Barden. “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,” he said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hell ant fossil discovered in amber: An 'evolutionary experiment'