Today’s breaking news in Ant Science is this:
Newly discovered pieces of amber have given scientists a peek into the Africa of 95 million years ago, when flowering plants blossomed across Earth and the animal world scrambled to adapt.
Suspended in the stream of time were ancestors of modern spiders, wasps and ferns, but the prize is a wingless ant that challenges current notions about the origins of that globe-spanning insect family…Inside the Ethiopian amber is an ant that looks nothing like ants found in Cretaceous amber from France and Burma.
Wow- that’s big news! I wonder what this amazing Ur-ant looks like? Fortunately, WIRED has a photo:
WIRED's caption- "Photos From Alexander Schmidt/PNAS: 1) Wingless ant"
Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but I’ll venture that this ant looks nothing like the other ants because it is, in fact, a beetle. With clearly visible elytra, and everything.
And because the press coverage is coming out ahead of the release of the PNAS paper, we can’t check the study to see if this is WIRED’s error or if the researchers themselves actually mistook a beetle for an ant.
update: The PNAS paper (Schmidt et al., 2010, Cretaceous African life captured in amber, PNAS doi 10.1073/pnas.1000948107) is now out. And yes, the mistake lies with the authors, as Fig. 3A shows the same beetle labeled as an ant. They write:
The most outstanding discovery is a complete, well-preserved although enrolled, wingless female ant (Formicidae; Fig. 3A). Visible characters preclude affinities with the extinct Sphecomyrminae, which is the only subfamily recorded for contemporaneous and older ants in mid-Cretaceous Burmese and French amber (15, 16). Regardless of the subfamily, this discovery is significant because it is one of the oldest records of an ant and the earliest from Gondwana. It has been suggested that ants arose in Laurasia during the Early Cretaceous (16–18), but the present discovery challenges this hypothesis. Ants evolved concurrent with the rise of angiosperms but apparently remained scarce until radiating into the world’s most diverse and ecologically dominant eusocial organisms during the Paleogene (19). The discovery will aid in resolving the phylogeny and timescale of ant lineages.
Unless, of course, the ant is a beetle. Who the hell reviewed this paper?
update 2: on Roberto Keller’s visualization, I’m now viewing this thing as possibly not a beetle either. But still not an ant.
update 3: in the NYT, too? Ug.