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The Ant Story

The Ant Story

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Any Antennae

A recent study in Science Advances, led by paleontologist Ryo Taniguchi, analyzes 100-million-year-old ant antennae preserved in amber, revealing sensory structures that suggest sophisticated chemical communication systems in early ants. A report

The antennae sprouting from the ant heads aren’t just for show. These wiggly appendages sweep the air to detect pheromones that raise alarms, lay trails, and help the insects navigate their social lives. While scientists have long believed ants have always been social creatures, the question of whether early ants used pheromones in the same way as their modern descendants has remained unanswered. However, a recent study published in Science Advances offers new insights into this mystery, suggesting that ancient ants might indeed have communicated chemically much like today’s ants.

In their groundbreaking research, Ryo Taniguchi, a paleontologist at Hokkaido University, and his team analyzed ancient ant antennae preserved in amber. These amber-encased specimens date back to roughly 100 million years ago, nearly as old as ants themselves. The team focused on three fossilized Gerontoformica gracilis ants from Myanmar, collected before the controversial period of military control over amber mines in 2017. This careful selection ensured the specimens met proper collection standards, as highlighted by the editors of Science Advances.

The challenge in this study lay in the microscopic structures of the ants’ antennae. Previous methods using microscopes and x-rays did not offer sufficient resolution. Instead, Taniguchi’s team employed laser microscopy, which revealed a variety of sensory hairs, or sensilla, on the antennae. These sensilla, of various shapes and sizes, are akin to those found in modern ants, used for sensing alarm pheromones and distinguishing friends from foes. The discovery of these sensilla in the same specific spots on both ancient and modern ants suggests a functional similarity.

“We’re in a golden age of ant fossil study … driven by these new imaging techniques,” says John LaPolla, a myrmecologist at Towson University. The ability to see such fine details in fossilized ants provides compelling evidence that social behavior, supported by chemical communication, was likely a feature of early ants. This new evidence strengthens the hypothesis that the earliest ants communicated using pheromones similarly to modern ants.

Phil Barden, an evolutionary biologist at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, points out that understanding how these ancient ants used chemical communication could shed light on why some ant species, including the study’s Gerontoformica gracilis, went extinct while others thrived. This line of inquiry might reveal whether differences in social structures and communication systems played a role in the success or failure of ant species.

However, not all experts are convinced that these ancient ants used their antennae for chemical communication. Daniel Kronauer, a myrmecologist at Rockefeller University, cautions that modern ants use their antennae sensilla for many purposes beyond pheromone detection, such as sensing prey, plants, or soil microbes. Thus, the presence of sensilla alone does not definitively prove pheromone communication in ancient ants.

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Despite the debate, the study represents a significant step forward in understanding ant evolution. “That’s always the case with paleontology: The field gets to this boundary and then we just set up camp and hang around until somebody makes some new methodological break, and we advance,” Barden explains. The use of advanced imaging techniques in this study marks such a methodological breakthrough, offering the best evidence yet that early ants may have shared the sophisticated chemical communication systems of their modern relatives.

In conclusion, while the debate over the specifics of ancient ant communication continues, this study provides a fascinating glimpse into the potential social lives of early ants. By uncovering the microscopic structures on ancient ant antennae, researchers are closer than ever to understanding how these tiny insects conquered the world through chemical conversation.


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