An ant fight has been preserved in amber for the last 100 million years, giving scientists a glimpse into the way ancient insects interacted and sparred with one another.
The fascinating discovery was presented in the journal Current Biology on Thursday, February 11.
It was based on research led by two experts in insect evolution and paleobiology: Phillip Barden, postdoctoral research fellow at Rutgers University Newark, and David Grimaldi, amber fossil curator at the American Museum of Natural History, and professor at Richard Gilder Graduate School.
The two entomologists analyzed fossilized amber unearthed in Myanmar and identified prehistoric ants that lived approximately 99 million years ago, during the Cretaceous period, when fearsome dinosaurs roamed the Earth.
Researchers even encountered a fossilized tree resin in which 21 worker ants can be clearly seen. That discovery was nothing short of remarkable, given the fact that just around 1% of the insects found in amber fossils are represented by ants.
To come across ancient tree resin that has trapped 21 ants at the same time is not just an exceptionally rare find, but also irrefutable proof that even at that time such insect species were highly social, just like their modern-day counterparts.
Study authors have also identified evidence of aggressive behavior among these ancient invertebrates, an ant fight having been frozen in Burmese amber, taking us back in time and showing us that conquering new territories, rich in food and other resources was as relevant then as it is nowadays.
It must be noted however that the insects which paleobiologists have identified in fossilized resin from Myanmar came from species that haven’t survived across the ages.
Although they shared a wide range of similarities with the 13,000 species of modern-day ants, these insects also exhibited major differences in appearance for instance, such as the presence of impressive tusks on their jaws, which allowed them to attack prey and fend off predators more easily.
Despite being built for combat and appearing therefore virtually impossible to defeat, these prehistoric ants are estimated to have died out approximately 10 million years ahead of or following the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction, which occurred about 65 million years ago, giving dinosaurs the ultimate deathblow.
It’s unclear for now what triggered these insects’ demise, although there are a few speculations circulating at the moment.
For instance, some suggest that climate change was to blame, while others suspect that other species that have persisted and evolved into modern ants simply prevailed over their less adaptable cousins, driving them to extinction.
Aside from bringing to light an ant fight that occurred 99 million years ago, study authors also discovered fossilized amber containing ancient termites from 6 different species, two of which had never been reported before: Gigantotermes rex and Krishnatermes yoddha.
Just like ants, these prehistoric insects were also highly eusocial, being organized in highly complex hierarchical structures consisting of several castes: soldiers, workers, drones and queens.
Image Source: Rutgers University