Ancient saber-toothed hell ants bring fantasy to life

Some of the most beloved ants include the army ants, which have been studied by scientists for centuries because of their nomadic swarming behaviors and the countless organisms that depend on them for survival: mites, beetles and birds, just to name a few. (Geoff Gallice/Wikimedia Creative Commons)

They used their saber-tooth to trap and pierce helpless prey, but they didn’t chew their meals whole like their modern relatives. They channeled their prey’s hemolymph – the insect version of blood – into their mouths through a complex gutter-like system.

These are ancient hell ants and scientists have just recently discovered them lodged inside of fossilized tree resin called amber in The Union of Myanmar. Their scythe-like mouthparts are so uncommon in modern ants that they are giving scientists insights into ant behavior and evolution that would have otherwise been the stuff of fantasy.

Imagine a period of Earth’s history beginning 125 million years ago in which monumental milestones would form the world we see today. That period is called the Cretaceous. Dinosaurs trudged and flew while the very first flowering plants unfurled. The first bees, butterflies and termites appeared. The supercontinent Pangea began to break into pieces and climates got cooler. Coastlines were extended and modern forests arose.  

And then: a mass extinction 65 million years ago.

Not only were most of the dinosaurs wiped out, but countless other creatures went extinct and are only known today by fossils. While it’s unclear whether hell ants survived that extinction or not, they no longer exist today.

These hell ants strengthened their scythes in a similar way that certain insects today create their various defensive and offensive weaponry – take, for example, the stingers of bees and wasps. Using X-ray technology, researchers found that the ants fortified their mouthparts with metal to strengthen their scythes and prevent wear and tear.

At the base of their scythes, researchers also found trigger hairs. When these hairs are just slightly agitated, the mouthparts will close rapidly to dig into their target. These trigger hairs are also found in modern ants, but researchers have never before found them on mouthparts as unexpected as the scythe-like mouthparts of ancient hell ants.

In fact, these hell ants offer glimpses into the origins of one of the most successful organisms on Earth other than humans – the mighty ants. Wherever they are found, especially in the tropics, ants make up the majority of invertebrate life and are key components of how ecosystems function and thrive.

Some of the most beloved ants include the army ants, which have been studied by scientists for centuries because of their nomadic swarming behaviors and the countless organisms that depend on them for survival: mites, beetles and birds, just to name a few. The University of Connecticut’s Biodiversity Research Collections Facility has recently received a National Science Foundation grant to preserve and share the world’s most comprehensive collection of army ants kept at the university, offering centuries worth of study material for new insights and discoveries.

On the great tree of life of all ants, hell ants are found somewhere toward the roots. They shared an ancestor with all modern ants and even though we can’t conclude the ancestors of all ants were like hell ants, we can be sure that hell ants provide glimpses into lifestyles and innovations that would otherwise be unthinkable if we knew only of the ants living today.


Diler Haji is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at diler.haji@uconn.edu.