Discovery of a 99 million year old unicorn ant

A paleontologist from the University of Rennes-1 has discovered, with an international team, a 99 million year old unicorn ant, a new species called Ceratomyrmex ellenbergeri. Four specimens were discovered in pieces of Burmese amber.

The facies of this new species called « ant-unicorn » could not be more surprising.  » Imagine a human skull where the lower jaw is modified into a pair of large sickles whose blades point well above the head, and whose middle of the forehead is surmounted by a long brush in the shape of a spatula… explains Vincent Perrichot, palaeontologist teacher-researcher at the University of Rennes-1. He made this discovery with his colleagues Bo Wang (Nanking Institute of Geology and Paleontology) and Michael Engel (University of Kansas), who published it in the journal Current Biology.

These oversized mandibles do not constitute a great astonishment in themselves, since several species of ants were and are made of them. But they have always been observed on a horizontal plane, which is not the case with this unicorn ant, the Ceratomyrmex ellenbergeri. With her, they move upwards, towards a kind of horn-spatula which stands at the top of the head.

© Perrichot et al./Current Biology.
© Perrichot et al./Current Biology.

It is therefore the first time that among the 14,000 species of ants recorded (past and present) we have observed this type of mandible, which was very probably a formidable hunting tool. This horn is covered with long bristles and a brush of short spines, implying a sensory function. For Vincent Perrichot, “ this sensory system should make it possible to precisely assess the size and position of the object seized between the mandibles and the horn, or even to stabilize it by friction with the spines “as he explains to the Blog Passeur de sciences.  » The idea is that these structures were used for predation purposes, rather than to manipulate twigs he continues. The very large space between the mandibles and the horn suggests that the prey caught by the unicorn ant was large,  » myriapods, arachnids, cockroaches and why not other ants… finally all kinds of crawling arthropods of size at least equal to that of this ant explains the paleontologist.

Sources: lemonde, fr3bretagne

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