Hell Ants in Three Acts

The year is 98787980 B.C.E. You gaze upon the reflection looking back at you from a tiny puddle in the soil. It’s a Caputoraptor elegans nymph! You are a Caputoraptor elegans nymph. While scurrying around to find some food, you idly ponder the relatively pleasant and carefree nature of your existence. Mere seconds after you complete this thought… BAM! You are trapped within the jaws of a monster that you didn’t see coming. Before your senses vanish forever, you marvel at the bizarre biological contraption that has ensnared you. Long jaws grab under your body, pressing you against remarkable horns protruding from the head of your captor. You feel no shame at finding yourself captured. How could you possibly have anticipated a predator that is so… weird? All goes dark. You know no more.

The year is 98787980 B.C.E. You catch a glimpse of yourself reflected against a wet, waxy leaf. It’s a HELL ANT! You are a hell ant. But that doesn’t matter much to you right now, as all you can mentally process is the intensity of your desire to find food. The larvae at home depend upon a successful capture. Ah – what is this passing by? A Caputoraptor elegans nymph! Delicious. He looks rather distracted, to be honest. Almost lost in thought. Should be an easy grab. Discretely approaching with your jaws open wide, hanging down from the bottom of your head, you get just close enough to the delicious, juicy critter, which strikes your sensory setae… BAM! Your jaws slam shut, moving upwards faster than even you yourself can process, trapping the little nymph, whose remaining seconds of life are rapidly drawing to a close. Turning to the left and walking a bit in the direction of your colony, you feel triumphant and, frankly, superior. Is there any insect that can escape the lightning speed of your trap jaws? Proud and haughty, you traverse a recently fallen tree trunk, step in some gooey, oozy resin, and discover that you are unable to move. Slowly sinking into the viscous liquid, you feel some shame at finding yourself captured by a dying tree. All goes dark. You know no more.

The year is 2020 C.E. You finish brushing your teeth, and see Dr. Phil Barden in the bathroom mirror. You are Dr. Phil Barden! You drive to work, a bit annoyed at the traffic between your home and the New Jersey Institute of Technology. This ephemeral annoyance soon gives way to wonder, as you sit down to examine a new pair of specimens preserved in 100-million-year-old amber. You have discovered the first documented, fossilized instance of predation by Haidomyrmecine “hell ants”. Such behavior, frozen in time, confirms the previously proposed, unusual mechanism of prey capture utilized by this extinct group of ants. You now have solid proof that, unlike all extant ants, these extinct hell ants moved their mandibles in a vertical rather than horizontal direction… BAM! You have written up a manuscript describing your remarkable findings, with two co-authors, and proudly submit the manuscript to Current Biology.

Figure 3 in Barden et al. (2020)

Update [September 18th, 2020, 8:40am]: The real-life Dr. Phil Barden provides some details surrounding the actual location of the specimen, and where he was when he analyzed it:

We apologize for any confusion arising from our imaginative retelling of this interesting study!