Ancient armored soldier termites struggled against ants

An astonishing world of active warring ants and heavy armored soldier termites was discovered by paleontologists in Burmese amber that dates to the middle of the Cretaceous period. Due to the well-preserved integrity of the examples and their abundance, scientists had a possibility to learn much new about the early representatives of the species that still exist and thrive.

Fossil insects — an armored termite and an ant trapped in amber (see the picture below) were contemporaries of dinosaurs.

an armored termite
A fight between a termite and an ant million years B.C.

Ants’ age is 99 million years, while termites are even one million years older. The fossils demonstrate an amazing level of social organization that had been reached very early in their historical development. A group of ants, for example, got locked in amber at the moment of their fighting with representatives of another spices, with their jaws remaining clutched.

It turned out that Cretaceous termites (the Age of Reptiles, the Cretaceous period (145-66 million years ago) had already managed by that time to acquire different adaptations in the organisms of soldier and worker termite casts.

The conclusions, reached by the scientists, due to the find of termites in amber

Termites are the earliest animals capable of making social groups, as one of the researchers of the study Philip Barden, a postdoctoral scientist at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York said. “Up until now, the oldest termite soldiers that we knew about were 20 million years old, so we have 80 million years longer of a record”, he mentioned, adding that there had been found termite remains of the age of 100 million years but it was fossils of winged termites, reproductive individuals, not representatives of the serving casts.

Judging by the finds in amber, in the Cretaceous period just as today, a termite colony was comprised of three castes of the insects: reproductive individuals with wings, worker termites, whose responsibilities were to collect food and to construct tunnels, and soldiers, occupied with dwellings protection. Two last castes are very well distinguishable: a soldier was characterized by a large armored head, while workers, in comparison with the former, looked gentle and inexpressive. “A worker is just very killable, and the soldier is like an armored tank of a thing”, Barden said.

Armored termites, Krishnatermes yoddha and Gigantotermes rex

One of the new termite species was named Gigantotermes rex by the researchers. It was quite big insects indeed (nearly an inch long (2 cm) with thick powerful jaws. Another new species Krishnatermes yoddha got its name in honor of a famous termite researcher Krishna Kumar and from the word “Yod’dha”, denoting a soldier or warrior in Hindi. It is interesting that the paleontologists have found representatives of all three castes in Krishnatermes yoddha: hard-headed soldiers, much more fragile workers and reproductive termites with transparent wings.

warrior termite
Photo by AMNH/D. Grimaldi. Reproductive termite, Krishnatermes yoddha, in amber.

“It seems that the termite soldier caste isn’t necessarily to deal with these early ants,” said Barden. “It was already well-developed when ants were kind of taking their baby steps.”

An internecine battle between an ant and a termite

The ants from the same collection of Burmese amber proved to be just one million years younger than the earliest representatives from this species, found in France. As paleontologists state, the first ants appeared on Earth around 150 million years ago, at the end of the Jurassic period but we have no fossil evidence of it.

However, as early as 99 million years ago, ants were already pronounced social insects and their group fossils are being found so often that we can exclude any matter coincidence here. Thus, the chance to encounter 11 individuals of Gerontoformica spiralis and one of Haidomyrmex zigrasi in a single piece of amber is considered by the study authors as 1 to 31 quadrillion. Another fragment of amber has in it remains of 21 ants of three different species at once.

Another impressive amber fragment captured fighting representatives of relative species Gerontoformica spiralis and Gerontoformica tendir. Their jaws have remained clasped for millions of years. Before the mortal battle could show us the winner, the insects had been embraced by the amber gum, preserving them until our days.

The discovery of the war between ants and termites provides new evidence to their complex social behavior, stated Barden. The paleontologists also spotted fossil remains of workers and queens, demonstrating that these specializations already existed in termite colonies of the Cretaceous period. “The fossils can be really illuminating for learning about things that are alive today,” Barden summarized. “And the things alive today and the genes within them can be really illuminating for learning about how these early things lived.”

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