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Where did ants come from?

Ants evolved from wasp-like ancestors, emerging between 140 and 168 million years ago. The estimate for ant emergence is based on fossil record (a whole host of Cretaceous and Paleogene fossils have been uncovered in the last two decades) and a large molecular dataset which allows for the inference of ant age by evolutionary radiation (increase in taxonomic diversity and morphological disparity due to adaptive change).

Sphecomyrma freyi is an 80 million year old species which was discovered trapped in amber and displays both modern ant and modern wasp features - a clue to what the most ancient ant ancestors looked like.

Sphecomyrma freyi trapped in amber

The family Formicidae itself began to diversify when flowering plants arose, around 100 million years ago and then gaining ecological dominance around 60 million years ago.

On from this, an expansion of many ant lineages was aided by changes in diet; away from dependence on predation, upward into the canopy, and outward into more arid environments. The extant tribes Anomalomyrmini and Leptanillini form the subfamily Leptanillinae and these 50 species are the oldest surviving ants and closely resemble the ants' common ancestor.

Do all living ants come from a single ancestor?

New World Army Ants of the subfamily Ecitoninae and the Old World groups Aenictinae and Dorylinae feature queens who cannot fly and do not get caught up by the wind. Yet, these species are very similar around the world. For this reason, the common scientific consensus up until 2003 had been that army ants originated separately on several continents over millions of years.

Eciton sp. soldier
Image Copyright© pbertner.

Entomologists at Cornell University used fossil data and genetic data discovered that all the Army Ant species share some of the same genetic mutations. If they share those mutations, it can be inferred they come from the same ancestor as the other subfamilies and have simply remained mostly unchanged ever since.

What effect did the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event have on ants?

The extinction event that occurred approximately 65.5 million years ago may have terminated the sphecomyrmine ants, or otherwise these ants vanished before the event, but certainly didn't continue after it.

The event allowed for the continued expansion of the flowering plants, which replaced many of the old seed-bearing plants worldwide. Forest litter became structurally and chemically more complex and this benefited the ant groups did survive.

Why are ants so important?

Ants are considered to be one of six ecological keystone insect groups and are especially notable among the insects for their ecological dominance as predators, scavengers, and indirect herbivores.

The number of species of ant makes up less than <2% of the known global insect fauna, but they compose at least one-third of its biomass. In the Brazilian rainforest, the biomass of ant species is approximately four times greater than that of all of the land vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians) combined.

The combination of advanced colonial life and worldwide environmental influence gives special significance to the evolutionary history of the ant.

Tags: Biology | Evolution | Sphecomyrma | freyi

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