A Fossilised Ancient Ant Queen Emerges From a 46-Million-Year-Old Rock

By George Dvorsky on at

This fossil of an ancient winged ant queen was recently discovered along the banks of the Flathead River in Montana. It’s the first of its kind ever discovered, and it’s forcing scientists to rethink when these creatures first appeared on Earth.

Called Crematogaster aurora, it’s a species of ant that lived in Montana 46 million years ago during the Eocene. As Smithsonian Science reports, palaeontologist Dale Greenwalt of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History found the ant buried in the Kishenehn Formation shale.

Scientists had thought that this ant genus, Crematogaster, evolved fairly recently, but as Greenwalt told the Smithsonian, the discovery “is requiring scientists to completely rethink when this genus and its related forms appeared,” adding that “it is obvious it has been around much longer than previously calculated.” The new ant, along with 12 other newly identified ant species, were recently described in a new paper published in the journal Sociobiology.

A Fossilized Ancient Ant Queen Emerges From a 46-Million-Year-Old Rock

(Credit: John S Lapolla, Dale E Greenwalt/Smithsonian)

In all, some 249 fossilised ants were examined in the study, with 152 of them assigned to various ant subfamilies.

“The Eocene is of particular interest for understanding ant evolution because it is during this period that many present-day species and ecologically dominant clades of ants apparently emerged,” write the authors in the study.

A Fossilized Ancient Ant Queen Emerges From a 46-Million-Year-Old Rock

(Credit: John S Lapolla, Dale E Greenwalt/Smithsonian)

The fossils are helping palaeontologists understand the evolution of ants and how they achieved their modern terrestrial dominance. As the researchers note, it’s “critical to understand the tempo of ant diversity during the Eocene.” Their early success was driven by such things as flowering plants and high temperatures (it was about 15 degrees C warmer worldwide back then than it is today).

“A lot of people also think the meteorite that caused the disappearance of the dinosaurs and ended the Cretaceous kind of reset the table for a lot of new things to evolve and diversify,” Greenwalt told the Smithsonian. “This maybe what happened with the ants.”

[ Smithsonian Science ]

Top image by John S Lapolla, Dale E Greenwalt/Smithsonian


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