Animals

Ancient Ants in Amber Were Like Today's Social Brawlers

Ants from nearly 100 million years ago, trapped forever in amber in Myanmar, were both social and prone to doing battle – just like modern ants.

Ants from nearly 100 million years ago, trapped forever in amber in modern-day Myanmar, were both social and prone to doing battle – just like modern ants.

That was the finding of a new study out of Rutgers University published in the journal Current Biology.

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The amber samples contain some of the earliest ants ever found, from 99 million years ago during the Cretaceous, of a lineage distinct from modern ants. They were revealing on several levels.

"We have one piece of amber with as many as 21 worker ants trapped, and that's significant because at this time period, ants are very rare to find in fossils. They make up less than 1 percent of all insects in amber," said the study's lead author, Phillip Barden, in a release.

"So to find 20 in one piece is highly suggestive of social behavior," the fossil insect expert and Rutgers-Newark postdoctoral fellow added. Social behavior in ants -- competing for survival as one large group of thousands to millions vs. as individual creatures -- is considered a possible reason for their longevity.

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Meanwhile, these weren't especially pacifistic ants. One of the amber samples captures, literally, a battle between two brawlers, albeit one declared an eternal draw by Mother Nature.

"That's a trait of ants," Barden said. "Many ant species do that all the time. They're always warring with either other individuals of the same species from different colonies or with different species."

Intriguingly, the ancient ants studied by Barden had a fighting feature not seen in modern ants: "mammoth, tusk-like jaws" that Barden posits were useful for stabbing their prey.

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One mystery remains, though: What happened to these ants? They went extinct, but for reasons yet unknown, even though it looks like they had the tools -- social structures and fighting skills -- to stand the test of time.

"It seems like they probably went extinct sometime in the 10 million years or so before or after dinosaurs went out," Barden said. "It could have been climate. We also think it's possible that the modern lineages actually out-competed these early ants."

Two fighting ants are trapped in 99-million-year-old Burmese amber.

Insects and other creepy crawlies may be tiny, but their lineages are mighty, finds a new study that determined the common ancestor of mites and insects existed about 570 million years ago. The study, published in the latest issue of the journal Science, presents an evolutionary timeline that settles many longstanding uncertainties about insects and related species. It found that true insects first emerged about 479 million years ago, long before dinosaurs first walked the Earth. Co-author Karl Kjer, a Rutgers entomologist, explained that mites are arthropods, a group that's distantly related to insects. Spiders and crustaceans are also arthropods.

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Spiders such as the huntsman spider can, like mites, trace their lineages back to about 570 million years ago, according to the new study. The researchers believe that the common ancestor of mites, spiders and insects was a water-dweller.

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Millipedes, such as the one shown here, as well as centipedes are known as myriapods. The most recent common ancestor of myriapods and crustaceans lived about 550 million years ago. Again, this "mother of many bugs" would have been a marine dweller. Kjer explained, "You can't really expect anything to live on land without plants, and plants and insects colonized land at about the same time, around 480 million years ago. So any date before that is a sea creature." Moving forward in time, the most common ancestor of millipedes and centipedes existed a little over 400 million years ago. The leggy body plan has proven to be extremely successful.

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"This is an early insect that evolved before insects had wings," Kjer said. Its ancestry goes back about 420 million years. The common ancestor of silverfish living today first emerged about 250 million years ago. Dinosaurs and the earliest mammals likely would have then seen silverfish very similar to the ones that are alive now.

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Dragonflies and damselflies have family histories that go back about 406 million years. Kjer said that such insects looked differently then, however. "For example," he said, "they had visible antennae." Their distant ancestors were among the first animals on earth to fly.

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"Parasitic lice are interesting, because they probably needed either feathers or fur," Kjer said. As a result, they are the relative newbies to this list. Nonetheless, the researchers believe it is possible that ancestors of today's lice were around 120 million years ago, possibly living off of dinosaurs and other creatures then.

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Crickets, katydids and grasshoppers had a common ancestor that lived just over 200 million years ago, and a stem lineage that goes back even further to 248 million years ago. A trivia question might be: Which came first, these insects or grass? The insects predate the grass that they now often thrive in.

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Dinosaur Era fossils sometimes include what researchers call "roachoids," or wing impressions that were made by ancestors to today's roaches, mantids (like the praying mantis) and termites. "Some cockroaches are actually more closely related to termites than they are to other cockroaches," Kjer said, explaining that this makes tracing back their lineages somewhat confusing. He and his colleagues determined that the stem lineage goes back about 230 million years, while the earliest actual cockroach first emerged around 170 million years ago.

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Termites and cockroaches have a tightly interwoven family history. Termites similar to the ones we know today were around 138 million years ago. Now we often think of termites as pests, but they are good eats for many different animals, which back in the day would have included our primate ancestors.

Flies like houseflies that often buzz around homes belong to the order Diptera, which has a family tree that goes back 243 million years ago. The most recent common ancestor for modern flies lived about 158 million years ago, according to the study. There is little doubt that the earliest humans, and their primate predecessors, had to contend with pesky flies and all of the other insects mentioned on this list. All of these organisms are extremely hardy. The researchers determined that, in the history of our planet, there has only been one mass extinction event that had much impact on insects. It occurred 252 million years ago (the Permian mass extinction), and even it set the stage for the emergence of flies, cockroaches, termites and numerous other creepy crawlies.

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