Team Collaborates to Raise Prehistoric ‘Hell Ants’ to Life

A team from NJIT’s College of Science and Liberal Arts and College of Architecture and Design embarks on a collaboration to reconstruct ant species from the age of the dinosaurs. (Image: P. Barden, H.W. Herhold, D.A. Grimaldi)
A team from NJIT’s College of Science and Liberal Arts and College of Architecture and Design embarks on a collaboration to reconstruct ant species from the age of the dinosaurs. (Image: P. Barden, H.W. Herhold, D.A. Grimaldi)

Ants. Sure, most are harmless and inconspicuous. Though, there are always exceptions. Army ants, bulldog ants, and fire ants are a few living members of the family Formicidae that nature television viewers might recognize from any number of World’s Deadliest countdown shows that populate the airwaves these days.

However, one of the most fearsome and striking of any ant species to come about, since the insect’s evolution from their wasp-like ancestors nearly 140 million years ago, is a species of long-extinct “hell ant” (haidomyrmecine), now known as “Vlad the Impaler” (Linguamyrmex vladi).

Named after the infamous Wallachian ruler from the 1400s that inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the prehistoric ant possessed scythe-like mandibles and a metal-reinforced horn on its forehead — deadly features that scientists believe the insect once used to gruesomely skewer its prey and consume their liquid innards in vampire-like fashion.

Head and thorax of Vlad the Impaler (Linguamyrmex vladi) in prehistoric amber. (Image: P. Barden, H.W. Herhold, D.A. Grimaldi​)

Head and thorax of Vlad the Impaler (Linguamyrmex vladi) in prehistoric amber. (Image: P. Barden, H.W. Herhold, D.A. Grimaldi​)

Vlad the Impaler lived on Earth almost 100 million years ago during the late Cretaceous Period. However, it wasn’t until 2017 that a team of evolutionary biologists, led by NJIT Professor of Biological Sciences Phillip Barden, discovered the hell ant and its unique head structure encased in Burmese amber from Kachin State, Myanmar.

The amber preserving Vlad’s fossil is estimated to predate the existence of Tyrannosaurus rex by nearly 35 million years. Now, Barden is leading a new project — to bring Vlad the Impaler and its long-extinct relatives back to life — digitally of course.

With Barden’s unique laboratory collection of prehistoric ant fossils at their disposal, an interdisciplinary team of NJIT students and faculty has begun applying modern imaging and design technology to virtually reconstruct the ancient anatomy of Vlad and its relatives — providing some of the first detailed, 3D models that illustrate how these long-lost insects once used their distinct biological traits to make them successful predators of their day. Barden said:

Ants in amber: Unlocking a time capsule of Earth history

The fossil record for ants as social insects starts about 100 million years ago with Vlad and others, which featured elongated metal horns and a lot of bizarre adaptations we no longer see today.

The fossil record for ants as social insects starts about 100 million years ago with Vlad and others, which featured elongated metal horns and a lot of bizarre adaptations we no longer see today. (Image: P. Barden)

Vlad the Impaler is just one of several prehistoric ants that the NJIT team has planned to reconstruct, including six from the hell ant lineage — a class of ant best characterized by its mammoth-like mandibles that tusk up toward the head, which is a bygone anatomical trait among today’s insects. Barden said:

Barden showcases collections of prehistoric ant fossils from the Dominican Republic currently stored at his lab inside NJIT’s Central King Building. (Image: P. Barden)

Barden showcases collections of prehistoric ant fossils from the Dominican Republic currently stored at his lab inside NJIT’s Central King Building. (Image: P. Barden)

Barden added:

As part of the project, Barden’s lab has conducted X-ray computed tomography (CT) images of the amber-preserved ants to begin gathering details about their morphology and biomechanics.

A 2D X-ray image of the mandibles and head capsule of Zigrasimecia tonsora from 99 million-year-old amber. (Image: P. Barden)

A 2D X-ray image of the mandibles and head capsule of Zigrasimecia tonsora from 99 million-year-old amber. (Image: P. Barden)

His lab has also struck a collaboration with Distinguished Professor of Physics John Federici, who is applying an up-and-coming imaging technology — called terahertz time-domain spectroscopy — to identify in sub-millimeter resolution elements of the ants’ prehistoric environment and microhabitat that have been locked away within the amber, formed by tree resin that has fossilized over millions of years. Barden said:

Federici added:

Raising hell ants to life

Photomicrograph of Linguamyrmex vladi. (Image: P. Barden, H.W. Herhold, D.A. Grimaldi)

Photomicrograph of Linguamyrmex vladi. (Image: P. Barden, H.W. Herhold, D.A. Grimaldi)

At NJIT’s Idea Factory under the supervision of Associate Professor of Architecture Martina Decker, industrial design undergraduate students — Daniel Meza, Jackson Fordham, Oliver Budd, and Victor Nzegwu — have been hired through a university SEED grant to digitally reconstruct the head, antennae, and jaw structures of extinct ant species based on CT scan images and photomicrographs taken of ant fossils.

Lateral photomicrograph of Zigrasimecia tonsora entombed in 99 million-year-old amber. (Image: P. Barden & D.A. Grimaldi)

Lateral photomicrograph of Zigrasimecia tonsora entombed in 99 million-year-old amber. (Image: P. Barden and D.A. Grimaldi)

The team’s work has involved importing those raw fossil image files into 3D modeling software such as Blender, where they then sculpt fresh 3D models of the insects using the X-ray images and other media as rough templates for their design. Meza said:

Fordham added:

Blender reconstruction of Linguamyrmex vladi. (Image: P. Barden)

Blender reconstruction of Linguamyrmex vladi. (Image: P. Barden)

Decker said:

Barden explained:

The team has transferred their digital designs into 3D-printed physical models to show the general public as well — incorporating materials such as resin, silicone, and other industrial products to augment their printed designs and create museum-quality castes.

A 3D CT scan reconstruction of the 99 million-year-old ant Haidomyrmex scimitarus. (Image: P. Barden / NJIT)

Already, the team’s models have made their way from display at NJIT’s Littman Library to audiences at museums across the tri-state area, recently appearing at the American Museum of Natural History and the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum for “Kid’s Week” earlier this year. Christine Sosiak, a Ph.D. researcher at Barden’s lab who is helping lead public outreach for the project, said:

Decker’s team now says that its next venture will be to help create motorized models that help bring the prehistoric ants to life even more for audiences. Meza noted:

Federici’s lab has been issued a new grant from the U.S. Army Research Office to upgrade his lab’s terahertz imaging system for military research on materials characterization and nondestructive evaluation of 3D-printed materials. He plans to use the new system to isolate and capture new images of amber fossils in unprecedented detail.

(From left) Martina Decker, Daniel Meza and Phillip Barden with 3D-print models of Linguamyrmex vladi.

(From left) Martina Decker, Daniel Meza and Phillip Barden with 3D-print models of Linguamyrmex vladi. (Image: P. Barden / NJIT)

Barden, meanwhile, has been traveling the world in search of new ant species. His lab is now characterizing a number of newly found species from the same deposit site that yielded Vlad the Impaler, as well as species from sites in India, the Dominican Republic, and even locally in New Jersey. Stay tuned. Barden said:

Provided by: New Jersey Institute of Technology [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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