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Scientists discover earliest ant mimics from mid-Cretaceous amber

NANJING (XINHUA) – Chinese scientists said on Monday they have discovered a new type of insect nymphs from mid-Cretaceous amber that indicates the earliest ant mimicry around 100 million years ago, thereby extending its geological range by approximately 50 million years.

The research team from the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences found more than a dozen ant-like alienopterid nymphs from over 100 fossils from China, the United States, Germany, Slovakia, and other countries.

“The larvae in the fossil are three to five millimetres long and have thin abdomens, similar to those of ants. Their antennae and legs are also very close to those of primitive ants,” said Wang Bo, who led the research.

Interestingly, the insect changed its targets as it grew. “Once the alienopterid adults have wings, they could no longer play the role of wingless ants, so they started to ‘imitate’ wasps,” said Wang, whose team confirmed wasp mimicry existing in alienopterid adults.

“The nymphs and adults of the mid-Cretaceous alienopterid imitate entirely different hymenopteran models, and therefore probably provide the first fossil record of transformational mimicry,” said the team.

Myrmecomorphy is a phenomenon in which some animals mimic ants morphologically and behaviorally, and belong to a special kind of anthropomorphic behavior, which is very widely distributed in nature, according to Wang.

“However, an animal that changes its mimics as it grows has never been seen in fossils before,” Wang said. “The transformational mimicry can help the animal spook predators and protect themselves.”

The study was published in Earth-Science Reviews on December 30, 2021.