Murder Hornets Beware, Scientists Just Discovered Prehistoric Hell Ants

To say that 2020 has been a wild ride of a year at this point feels like a serious understatement and we're not talking about the global pandemic that continues to disrupt life as we've known it. We're talking about some of the year's other surprising developments, such as the terrifying "murder hornets" spotted in North America that left people wondering what other horrifying thing would pop up on our collective 2020 bingo cards. Well, now we can add another frightening insect to the list, though one that's mercifully long extinct: the prehistoric "hell ant".

Scientists have recently discovered the prehistoric ant of nightmares preserved in amber, though this isn't just any ordinary specimen. The ant captured in the amber was frozen in the middle of devouring an extinct relative of the common cockroach, the chilling and fascinating insect behavior frozen in time for 99 million years.

"Fossilized behavior is exceedingly rare, predation especially so," Phillip Barden, a paleontologist at the New Jersey Institute of Technology said (via Science Alert). "As paleontologists, we speculate about the function of ancient adaptations using available evidence, but to see an extinct predator caught in the act of capturing its prey is invaluable."

And the so-called Hell Ant appears to be quite the predator. Preserved in the amber, the insect is seen to have recurved mandibles that swing upward as well as a horn-like feature on its forehead that could be used to impale prey -- features that no living species of ant has.

"Hell ants have two features found in no living species: highly specialized scythe-like mandibles and a wide diversity of horns that are present on what is essentially the forehead," Barden told CNN (via Smithsonian).

These newly discovered hell ants are actually just the latest species of the creatures. Researchers have previously identified 16 other species of the insects though this newest species, Ceratomyrmex ellenbergeri, offers researchers hard evidence that prehistoric ants jaws worked in a vertical or up and down hinge motion as opposed to horizontal which is the case in all living ants.

"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," Barden said.

But the capture may have been the least horrifying thing for the unfortunate prehistoric cockroach this particular hell ant was captured with. Barden hypothesized that the ant likely immobilized its prey with a sting and then went on to utilizing what he called a "social digestive system" by feeding the prey to larvae and, then would in turn drink blood from those larvae.

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"They have these highly specialized mouthparts that are so exaggerated they can't feed themselves. Instead, they feed the prey to their own larvae—and the larvae have unspecialized mouthparts, so they can chew normally," Barden suggested. "Basically, they use their own siblings and offspring as a social digestive system. We don't have direct evidence that's the case here, but that could be something that's going on."

What do you think about hell ants? Are they scarier than murder hornets even if they are extinct? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.