Published: | By: Sebastian Hollstein
Dating the find also presented the scientists with some challenges, as the amber itself is as unique as the organisms inside it. “The piece with these ants is from the only amber deposit in Africa so far that has featured fossil organisms in inclusions. Altogether, there are only a few fossil insects from this continent. Although amber has long been used as jewellery by locals in the region, its scientific significance has only become clear to researchers in the last 10 years or so,” explains Vincent Perrichot from the University of Rennes. “The specimen therefore offers what is currently a unique insight into an ancient forest ecosystem in Africa.” It dates from the early Miocene and is 16 to 23 million years old, says Perrichot. Its complicated dating was only possible indirectly, by determining the age of the fossil palynomorphs – the spores and pollen – enclosed in the amber.
Modern methods for looking into the distant past
Research results such as these are only possible through the use of state-of-the-art technology. As the genetic material of fossils cannot be analysed, precise data and observations on the morphology of animals are particularly important. Comprehensive data can be obtained using high-resolution imaging techniques, such as micro-computed tomography (CT), in which X-rays are used to look through all layers of the sample. “Since the ants enclosed in amber that are to be examined are very small and only show a very weak contrast in classical CT, we carried out the CT at our measuring station, which specialises in such micro-tomography,” explains Jörg Hammel from the Helmholtz-Zentrum Hereon. “This provided the researchers with a stack of images that basically showed the sample that was being studied slice by slice.” Put together, these produced detailed three-dimensional images of the internal structure of the animals, which the researchers could use to reconstruct the anatomy with precision. This was the only way to exactly identify the details that ultimately led to the new species and genus being determined.
Brendon E. Boudinot, Adrian K. Richter, Jörg U. Hammel, Jacek Szwedo, Błażej Bojarski, Vincent Perrichot: „Genomic-phenomic reciprocal illumination: †Desyopone hereon gen. et sp. nov., an exceptional aneuretine-like fossil ant from Ethiopian amber (Hymenoptera: Formicidae: Ponerinae)“, Insects 2022, 13(9), 796; https://doi.org/10.3390/insects13090796
A three-dimensional visualisation of the ant is displayed here as a video.