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Dear Consult-Ant,

A couple of students and I are researching ants.
 
We have a series of questions we would like to know answers to and we were wondering if you could help us?
 
Our questions are:

  • - Where do ants come from?
  • - What was the first ant species discovered?
  • - What did the first  ant species look like?
  • - What did the first ants eat?
  • - Is there an ant species that are extinct?
  • - How and when were ants created?

It would be appreciated if you could help us.

Yours sincerely

Dylan

Your questions are great ones, and it turns out that we are getting more and more information to help answer them all the time. I am no expert in this area, however. I will start the conversation and perhaps someone more current in the topic will stop by and clarify.

1. Where do ants come from?

From your other questions, I assume you mean where did the first ants come from, and not where do new ants colonies that show up in your backyard come from. If I have misread your question, please let me know.

To answer, it is helpful to look at the "family tree" of the Order Hymenoptera.

(Note:  This is a roughly-drawn family tree for the layperson to show the relationships between major groups of Hymenoptera. If you are unfamiliar with sawflies, here is a brief overview.)

As you can see from this illustration, the ants are smack-dab in the middle of the wasps. Ants are essentially wasps with wingless workers that live in social groups.

2. What was the first ant species discovered?

The first ants are thought to have shown up during the Cretaceous period, the time when the land was dominated by dinosaurs.

Scientists examine fossils to piece together details of prehistoric life. It isn't all that easy to find insect fossils, however, so they have to rely on insects trapped in deposits of amber (hardened tree resin).

This lovely photograph of ants trapped in amber was taken by Mila Zinkova at Wikimedia.

E.O. Wilson, Frank Carpenter and William L. Brown, Jr. (1967) described the first wasp-ant from mid-Cretaceous amber as the extinct species, Sphecomyrma freyi. They were not completely sure it was an ant because they couldn't see whether it had a metapleural gland (a gland ants have on the sides of their mid-sections, but which wasps lack). Dave Grimaldi took up the challenge, and he and his colleagues verified Specomyrma freyi did have a metapleural gland and was indeed an ant. They also found a total of four genera and eight species in the extinct ant subfamily, Sphecomyrminae. The earliest are from French and Burmese amber.

Since that time other ant species, both extinct and living have been found. It seems like they are all jockeying for position to be the "first ant."

The other contenders:

  • Nothomyrmecia macrops - an early favorite, this living species from Australia shows transitional features of ants and wasps
  • Cariridus - an extinct ant found in Brazilian amber, assigned to the subfamily Myrmecinae (same as Nothomyrmecia)
  • Armaniinae or Armaniidae - Extinct. Are they wasps or are they ants? No one knows for sure yet.
  • Martialis heureka - A newly discovered living species of ant from the Amazonian rainforest, it was so different it rated its own subfamily, Martialinae

As more early ants are found in amber, the beginnings of the Formicidae (ant family) will become clearer.

3. What did the first ant species look like?

As alluded to above, the first ants most likely looked like wingless wasps. There are photographs of Sphecomyrma freyi available on the Internet, for example at The Ant Farm and Myrmecology Forum. Even if it isn't the first ant, it was probably similar.

Sphecomyrma freyi has characteristics of both ants and wasps.
Ant characteristics:

  • metapleural gland present
  • structure of petiole (waist)

Wasp charactistics:

  • mandible structure
  • tibial spurs wasp-like

Ants are known for having "elbowed" antennae, that is the first segment attached to the head is long, forming the scape. The first segment of the antennae of Sphecomyrma freyi are slightly longer than in wasps, but not as long as that of modern ants.

You can also see a drawing of Cariridus by downloading the full text of:  Carlos Roberto F. Brandão, Rafael G. Martins-Neto, and M. Aparecida Vulcano. 1989. The earliest known fossil ant (first southern hemisphere Mesozoic record) (Hymenoptera; Formicidae: Myrmeciinae. Psyche 96:195-208 here.

4. What did the first ants eat?

Most likely the first adult worker ants ate what wasps and adult worker ants eat these days, which is liquids. The presence of the thin "waist" makes it impossible for adult ants to eat solid foods. However, they would not have eaten nectar, at least at first, because flowering plants arose a bit later.

The workers were likely predators that captured arthropods to feed to their larvae. The larvae may have given liquid food back to the adults once they had processed it. The adults might also have taken fluids from the prey.

5. Is there an ant species that are extinct?

Yes, many of the species found in amber (question 2) are extinct, as far as we know.

6. How and when were ants created?

Oh boy, that's a tough question. When? The oldest fossils right now are from early to mid-Cretaceous, about 130 million years ago. How? Probably genetic modification from wasps already present. There are definitely people working on these sorts of questions. I'm not sure that what we know about the earliest ants is hard and fast yet.

I hope this helps, and that the answer arrives in time to help with your project.

Resources:

Carlos Roberto F. Brandão, Rafael G. Martins-Neto, and M. Aparecida Vulcano. 1989. The earliest known fossil ant (first southern hemisphere Mesozoic record) (Hymenoptera; Formicidae: Myrmeciinae. Psyche 96:195-208. Can download here.

Michael S. Engel and David A. Grimaldi. (2005). Primitive New Ants in Cretaceous Amber from Myanmar, New Jersey, and Canada (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). American Museum Novitates Number 3485 :1-24.

Holldobler, B. and E. O. Wilson. 1990. The Ants. The Belnap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. Excerpt.

Ted R. Schultz. (2000). In search of ant ancestors. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 97(26): 14028-14029. (full text online)

New Ant Species Discovered In The Amazon Likely Represents Oldest Living Lineage Of Ants. Science News. 2008.

Lori Lach, Catherine Parr, and Kirsti Abbott, eds. 2010. Ant Ecology. Oxford University Press, USA, particularly chapters 1 and 2.

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(Note: As I mentioned previously, I have been the “Consult-Ant” on the Leaping from the Box website. I answer questions about ants and ant farms. From now on I will post the answers here, and when Karen has time she will also post the answers on her site.)