An article published in the journal “Systematic Entomology” describes a research on an ant that lived about 98 million years ago and was preserved in amber. Called Linguamyrmex vladi, it was studied using modern technologies by a team of researchers led by Dr Phillip Barden. It turned out that it was a species with morphological characteristics that indicate a highly specialized predator behavior. It was part of an extinct group nicknamed “hell ants” and fed off its prey’s blood.
In the Cretaceous period, several species of ants belonged to the taxonomic tribe Haidomyrmecini, part of the Sphecomyrminae subfamily. In today’s Myanmar, various insects have been found very well preserved in amber, even so different from the ones existing today to deserve the creation of a new taxonomic order such as Aethiocarenus burmanicus. In the case of Linguamyrmex vladi the situation is different because the ants that lived in the Cretaceous period belonging to groups that today are extinct are already known.
Dr Phillip Barden’s team examined the Linguamyrmex vladi specimen with microscope and using an X-ray micro-TAC, a version of the common scanning technique used in the medical field adapted to studies such as in the paleontology field. This species had scythe-like jaws particularly large for an ant and a horn-like appendage that from the scan turned out to be reinforced with metals such as zinc, manganese and iron.
Reinforced appendages are not something unheard among insects but the Linguamyrmex vladi case confirms that it’s a predator whose main “weapon” was strengthened, perhaps also due to the elements present in its prey’s blood. In today’s many species of insects, jaws are the parts that get strengthened, in that Cretaceous ant a reinforced horn allowed to puncture a prey’s shell more easily.
This system allowed Linguamyrmex vladi to reach its prey’s soft parts and to suck their haemolymph with a straw-like organ it had between its jaws. That’s why this species was defined a vampire ant and received a name inspired by the historical man at the origin of the legend of Dracula.
Linguamyrmex vladi shows the diversification that existed among the ants that lived in the Cretaceous, with many adaptations present in extinct groups that are absent in today’s ants. In some ways, the behavior of these ancient ants are the result of hypothesis but the amount of insects found imprisoned in amber in Myanmar allow us to make an idea about it and also to hope to find more of them.