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Beetle that can rip off worker ants is 52 million years old

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Nature had that all figured out.

Gotta hand it to amber: Just preserving things exactly as they were 52 million years ago. From ScienceDaily:

ientists have uncovered the fossil of a 52-million-year old beetle that likely was able to live alongside ants — preying on their eggs and usurping resources — within the comfort of their nest. The fossil, encased in a piece of amber from India, is the oldest-known example of this kind of social parasitism, known as “myrmecophily.” Published today in the journal Current Biology, the research also shows that the diversification of these stealth beetles, which infiltrate ant nests around the world today, correlates with the ecological rise of modern ants.

“Although ants are an integral part of most terrestrial ecosystems today, at the time that this beetle was walking the Earth, ants were just beginning to take off, and these beetles were right there inside the ant colonies, deceiving them and exploiting them,” said lead author Joseph Parker, a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History and postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University, who is a specialist on these beetles. “This tells us something not just about the beetles, but also about the ants — their nests were big enough and resource-rich enough to be worthy of exploitation by these super-specialized insects. And when ants exploded ecologically and began to dominate, these beetles exploded with them.”

No site without a parasite?

Today, there are about 370 described species belonging to Clavigeritae, a group of myrmecophilous, or “ant-loving” beetles about 1-3 millimeters in length, and Parker estimates that several times this number of species still await discovery. Remarkable adaptations enable these beetles to bypass the fortresslike security of ant nests, which employ a pheromone code of recognition that ants use to identify, and then dismember and consume, intruders. Through ways that scientists are still trying to understand, Clavigeritae beetles pass through these defenses and integrate seamlessly into colony life.

Whatever happened does not include any intelligence. Remember that. Oh, wait.

“Adopting this lifestyle brings lots of benefits. These beetles live in a climate- controlled nest that is well protected against predators, and they have access to a great deal of food, including the ants’ eggs and brood, and, most remarkably, liquid food regurgitated directly to their mouths by the worker ants themselves,” Parker said. “But pulling off this way of life means undergoing drastic morphological changes.”

Oh heck, every form of refuge has its price.

Clavigeritae beetles look quite different from their closest relatives, with fusions of segments within the abdomen and antennae — likely meant to provide additional protection from the ants, which often pick the beetles up and carry them around the nest — and mouthparts that are recessed inside the head in order to accept liquid food from worker ants. They also have glands that cover the body with oily secretions, and thick brushes of hair on top of their abdomens, called trichomes, which act as candlewicks and conduct chemical-containing secretions from nearby glands. The makeup of these chemicals is unknown, but they are thought to encourage ants to “adopt” rather than attack the beetles.

Is this really a complete accident?

Great pic that accompanies the paper shows ant being nice to beetle (not usual situation in nature). Here’s the summary:

Myrmecophiles—species that depend on ant societies—include some of the most morphologically and behaviorally specialized animals known [ 1 ]. Remarkable adaptive characters enable these creatures to bypass fortress-like security, integrate into colony life, and exploit abundant resources and protection inside ant nests [ 2, 3 ]. Such innovations must result from intimate coevolution with hosts, but a scarcity of definitive fossil myrmecophiles obscures when and how this lifestyle arose. Here, we report the earliest known morphologically specialized and apparently obligate myrmecophile, in Early Eocene (~52 million years old) Cambay amber from India. Protoclaviger trichodens gen. et sp. nov. is a stem-group member of Clavigeritae, a speciose supertribe of pselaphine rove beetles (Coleoptera: Staphylinidae) heavily modified for myrmecophily via reduced mouthparts for trophallaxis with worker ants, brush-like trichomes that exude appeasement compounds, and fusions of many body and antennal segments [ 4, 5 ]. Protoclaviger captures a transitional stage in the evolutionary development of this novel body plan, most evident in its still-distinct abdominal tergites. The Cambay paleobiota marks one of the first occurrences in the fossil record of a significant presence of modern ants [ 6 ]. Protoclaviger reveals that sophisticated social parasites were nest intruders throughout, and probably before, the ascent of ants to ecological dominance, with ancient groups such as Clavigeritae primed to radiate as their hosts became increasingly ubiquitous. (paywall)

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2 Replies to “Beetle that can rip off worker ants is 52 million years old

  1. 1
    anthropic says:

    Governments are 52 million years old? 😉

  2. 2
    awstar says:

    Such innovations must result from intimate coevolution with hosts, but a scarcity of definitive fossil myrmecophiles obscures when and how this lifestyle arose.

    Yes they “must” for evolution to be true, but 2 times impossible is still impossible.

    I don’t suppose anyone thought of doing some carbon 14 dating on these amber encased fossils to see if they really are older than 50,000 years. Or would that be too scientific for evolution biology?

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