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Researchers Find 98-Million-Year-Old Horned Vampire Ant Encased in Amber

A newly described species of Hell Ant impaled its tiny victims on its reinforced horn and may have slurped up their bug blood

(Systematic Entomology)
smithsonian.com

Encountering a floating mat of fire ants may be a modern nightmare, but a newly described ant species is even more fearsome. As Josh Gabbatiss at New Scientist reports, researchers recently described a new genus and species of “hell ant” that has a metal-reinforced horn and jaws designed to slurp up blood.

The critter was encapsulated 98-million-years ago during the Cretaceous period in sticky tree resin. Discovered in present-day Myanmar, it is now preserved in an amber tomb. The researchers dubbed the new species Linguamyrmex vladi ("Vladi" for Vlad the Impaler, aka the original Dracula) and described its fearsome looks in the journal Systematic Entomology.

As Gabbatiss reports, instead of the usual ant mouthparts, Vladi has two large mandibular blades. It’s believed that when prey passed by the ant, they would set off trigger hairs. The blades would then activate, flipping up to impale the hapless creatures on the ant’s horn. The flipped up mandibles had grooves that acted as a type of gutter that could then direct haemolymph, the insect version of blood, into the ant’s mouth—but this is just an educated guess.

“Until we find a specimen with the prey item trapped, which is probably a matter of time, we’re left to speculate,” lead author of the study Phillip Barden at the New Jersey Institute of Technology tells Gabbatiss.

Equally amazing, according to the paper, is that X-ray imaging shows the horn, or clypeal paddle, is impregnated with metal particles, likely to strengthen it and help it withstand multiple impacts. That same type of reinforcement is found in the pincers of some modern beetles that contain zinc or iron.

While Vladi’s horn is likely unique, it’s not the only potentially blood-drinking hell ant researchers have discovered. The first hell ant was collected in the 1920s, but it wasn’t until 1996 that a Russian researcher recognized the insect trapped in amber, Michelle Z. Donahue wrote for Smithsonian.com last year. Over the last two decades, entomologists have described five other species of ancient hell ants. And this motley crew makes up the oldest true ants in the world.

“There are no ant fossils older than these, full stop,” Barden tells Donahue. “But we estimate from molecular data and DNA analysis that they diversified 20 to 60 million years earlier.”

Though they are not directly related to modern ants, there are some similarities—though not many. Recently, researchers described how the trap-jaw ant, a genus of tropical ant, also uses trigger hairs that set off their mega-jaws, which snap shut in half a millisecond—700 times faster than a blink of an eye.

When talking about the trap-jaw ant, North Carolina State University entomologist Magdalena Sorger tells Carrie Arnold at National Geographic, “I don’t know that there’s another species of ant that’s as strange-looking as these.” But she may not have been looking far enough in the past.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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