Hell ant amber, Fossil captures ancient ‘hell ant’ in action.

Around 99 million years ago, a juvenile cockroach met a hellish fate. It was snapped up by the jaws of a Cretaceous hell ant, a fierce predator with long, curving mandibles that swept up toward the top of the ant’s head.

Just moments later, the ant and roach were trapped in sticky sap that eventually turned to amber, providing scientists with a first glimpse of how the weird-faced ants trapped prey.

The profile of a hell ant, with exaggerated upward-facing jaws that arc like the Grim Reaper’s scythe, is unlike that of any ant alive today. Adding to the facial weirdness is a hell ant’s horn, which comes in a variety of shapes in this ant group, known as Haidomyrmecine.

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Researchers had long suspected that hell ants swung their prominent mandibles upward to catch their prey, unlike modern ants that snap their jaws together horizontally. In the piece of Cretaceous amber from Myanmar, scientists found the first confirmation of this hunting technique.

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Hell ants lived during the Cretaceous period (about 145.5 million to 65.5 million years ago), and are known from amber deposits in Myanmar, France and Canada spanning 100 million to 78 million years ago, said evolutionary biologist Phillip Barden, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Barden and his colleagues described the amber-embedded hell ant in a new study, published online today (Aug. 6) in the journal Current Biology.

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Scientists described the first hell ant about a century ago, and have since identified 16 species — all of whom have elongated mandibles and horns.

In the amber, the mandibles of the hell ant Ceratomyrmex ellenbergeri hug the roach nymph, Caputoraptor elegans, from below, pinning it against the horn on the ant’s head. Finding this rare example of fossilized predation was astonishing — but also vindicating, Barden told Live Science.


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