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NJIT; Chinese Academy of Sciences; University of Rennes, France

Fossil captures ancient ‘hell ant’ in action

A new fossil reveals how a mysterious ancient insect captured its meals.

The discovery depicts a 99-million-year-old encounter between a “hell ant,” one of the earliest known ants, and its prey, an extinct relative of the cockroach. Preserved in amber, the ant, less than half the length of a dime, grasps the victim’s neck between two sharp mandibles and a hornlike protrusion on its head (pictured left, illustrated right).

The find highlights hell ants’ strange anatomy. Whereas the mandibles of modern ants (as well as all adult insects) move horizontally, those of hell ants moved vertically, similar to how human jaws open and close. The varied mouth and head shapes of these prehistoric ants suggests they captured and killed prey in different ways. Scientists suspected this species (Ceratomyrmex ellenbergeri) moved its sharp mandibles upward to pin its prey against the “horn” between its antennae. But this fossil provides the first direct evidence of this predatory strategy, the authors report today in Current Biology.

Once its prey was in its clutches, scientists think the hell ant delivered an immobilizing sting, sealing the fate of its victim.