The name of the new species and genus is Desyopone, hereafter Gen. etc. Nov. With this, the scientists pay tribute to the two research institutions involved, DESY and Hereon, which contributed significantly to this discovery with the help of modern imaging techniques.
The identification of the new species and genus was ultimately only possible through a combination of extensive phenotypic data obtained by scanning and recent findings from analyzes of living ant genomes.
Initial anatomical comparisons led the scientists to believe that the animals were a species of Aneuretinae, a nearly extinct subfamily of ants previously known only from fossils and a single living species from Sri Lanka.
However, thanks to high-resolution images, they revised that identification.
How did the researchers discover the new species?
“The complex waist segment and the large but rudimentary mandibles – the mouthparts – are more familiar to us from the Ponerinae, a dominant group of predatory ants,” says Brendon Boudinot, currently at the College of Jena.
“For this reason, we assigned the new species and genus to this subfamily, even though it has a unique appearance.” The results of the current research also help put male ants at the center of evolutionary research.
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“Because they have such a different body shape than workers, which are all female, research has long neglected them. That’s because males are simply too often overlooked because they can not be properly classified,” Boudinot says.
“Our results not only update the literature on identifying male ants, but also show that by understanding male-specific features, such as the specific shape of the mandible, we can learn more about the evolutionary patterns of female ants.”
The new species has a unique appearance
In fact, in the present study, the researchers identified a basic pattern that occurs in all ants, namely that male and female mandibles follow the same evolutionary pattern in most species, even though they look very different.
Dating the discovery also presented the researchers with some challenges, as the amber itself is as unique as the organisms within it.
“The piece with these ants comes from the only amber deposit in Africa that has fossilized organisms in inclusions so far. Overall, there are few fossil insects from this continent. Although amber has long been used as jewelry by locals in the region, researchers have only understood its scientific significance in the last 10 years,” explains Vincent Perrichot of the College of Rennes, EurekAlert writes.
“Therefore, the specimen offers a currently unique insight into an ancient forest ecosystem in Africa.” It dates to the early Miocene and is between 16 and 23 million years old, Perrichot said. Its complicated dating was possible only indirectly, by determining the age of fossils – spores and pollen – encased in amber.
Modern methods for looking into the distant past
The results of this research are only possible through the use of state-of-the-art technology. Since the genetic material of the fossils cannot be analyzed, accurate data and observations of the animals’ morphology are especially important. Complete data can be obtained with high-resolution imaging techniques such as computed tomography (CT), which uses X-rays to illuminate all layers of the specimen.
Taken together, they yielded detailed three-dimensional images of the animals’ internal structure, which allowed the researchers to accurately reconstruct the anatomy.
This was the only way to accurately identify the details that ultimately led to the determination of the new species and genus.