Thursday, May 5, 2011

Big, "Beautiful" Fossil Ant in Tennessee

"Hummingbird-Sized Ants Once Roamed Wyoming"
Susan Milius, Science News, Wired Science, Wired (May 5, 2011)

"It's not a bird or a plane, but it is an ant the size of a hummingbird.

"A winged ant queen fossilized in 49.5-million-year-old Wyoming rock ranks as the first body of a giant ant from the Western Hemisphere, says paleoentomologist Bruce Archibald of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia.

"The new species, Titanomyrma lubei, is related to giant ants previously found in German fossils. These long-distance relatives bolster the notion that the climate of the time had hot blips that allowed warmth-loving giant insects to spread from continent to continent, Archibald and a U.S.-Canada team propose online May 4 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B...."

Those "hot blips" were fairly long periods of time in comparison with, say, the production run of television series like 2007's Quarterlife. On a geological scale, though - not so much.

These big ants, by the way, aren't all that old. They lived, the article says, about 49,500,000 years back - practically 'recent,' compared to the 300,000,000-year-old dragonflies with two-and-a-half-foot wingspans. Ah, those were the 'good old days.' (November 3, 2010)

Back to the article.

Tennessee's Ancient Ant: Big, But Not Biggest

"...An ancient ant wing from Tennessee had hinted that big ants lived in North America during this time, says Torsten Wappler of the University of Bonn in Germany. 'But complete preserved specimens were not known until Bruce came up with this beautiful preserved fossil.'

"The new fossil caught Archibald's eye as he and co-author Kirk Johnson poked around storage drawers at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, where Johnson works. The spookiest thing about the Wyoming ant may be that even at 5.1 centimeters [2 inches] long, she is not the largest ant ever found. A German specimen is slightly longer, as are queens of a living African driver ant, Dorylus wilverthi.

"Although ants overall trend toward greater size in cooler places, Archibald notes that the eight largest living species dwell mostly in the tropics. The team looked at climate reconstructions for the fossil species and found hot spots where the ancient giants lived as well.

"For a tropical lineage to have sprawled between continents meant taking ancient land bridges through Greenland or Iceland. During much of the ants' time those northern routes were merely temperate. But brief hot spells were possible, Archibald and his colleagues say.

"Climate scientists have already suggested there were several around 50 million years ago. One, for example, lasted about 170,000 years...."
(Wired Science)

Once again: one of those "hot spells" lasted around 170,000 years. The article doesn't say whose fault they were. Or, indeed, if they were anybody's fault. And the Lemming's ranted about that before:The Lemming notes that, big as that Tennessee fossil ant is - a living species is bigger. Still: That's one big ant.

What's more puzzling, apparently, are fossil critters like "hippo predecessors, tropical plankton and pollen from tropical palms" found in a region that should be distinctly arctic in some ways. "...'The major challenge is to explain how a region that does not receive sunlight for six months keeps from freezing its giant ants and other creatures that don't tolerate frost.'..." (the Netherlands's Utrecht University's Appy Sluijs)

As the Lemming's said before, when observations back up established and/or common-sense ideas - that's great. When observations just don't add up - and can't be dismissed - - - even better! That means there's something new to learn.

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