Giant fossil ants linked to global warming

May 4, 2011, Simon Fraser University
Two SFU biologists are among four scientists a fossilized giant ant that is comparable in size to a humming bird.

( -- Four paleontologists, including two at Simon Fraser University, have discovered the fossil of a gigantic ant whose globetrotting sheds light on how global warming events affected the distribution of life some 50 million years ago.

The , a British scientific journal, has published online today (May 4) their study Intercontinental dispersal of giant thermophilic across the Arctic during early Eocene hyperthermals.

The authors are Bruce Archibald and Rolf Mathewes from SFU (British Columbia, Canada), David Greenwood from Brandon University (Manitoba, Canada) and Kirk Johnson from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science in (Colorado, USA).

They describe a new fossil species of giant ant, which they’ve named Titanomyrma lubei. This winged queen ant lived in the Eocene Epoch about 50 million years old. It had a body just over five centimetres long — comparable to a hummingbird — a size only rivaled today by the monstrously large queens of an ant species in tropical Africa.

Archibald found the ant in a drawer when visiting Johnson at the Denver Museum. He says: “What is surprising is that this ant scurried about an ancient forest in what is now Wyoming when the climate there was hot like the modern tropics. In fact, all of the closely related fossil giant ants have been found in Europe and North America at sites that had hot climates.”

The researchers also looked at the habitats of the largest modern ants, and found that almost all live in the tropics, indicating that there might be something about being big that requires ants to live in hot temperatures.

During the Eocene Epoch, many plants and animal species migrated between Europe and North America via continuous land across the Arctic, bridging the two continents. But the mystery is how did these ancient giant ants pass through a temperate Arctic climate — too cool for them?

The researchers suspect that the key is in the brief, but intense episodes of global warming that happened around this time. They appear to have created periodic opportunities for hot climate life to pass between continents through the Arctic. Archibald calls them brief openings of a physiological gate to cross the physical land bridge.

He notes that these findings will help scientists gain a better grasp of the impacts of global warming on life. He says: “As the Earth’s climate changes, we are seeing tropical pest species extend their ranges into mid-latitudes and dragonflies appear in the Arctic. Understanding the details of how life forms adapted to in the past will be of increasing importance in the future.”

Explore further: When Ants Go Sweating: Zoologists to Study Climate Change Effects

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5 / 5 (7) May 04, 2011
Is that a standard metric hummingbird?
3 / 5 (2) May 04, 2011
Two SFU biologists are among four scientists a fossilized giant ant that is comparable in size to a humming bird.

what the heck? Are the two SFU biologists themselves giant ants? and fossilized on top of that. That would be a first.
1 / 5 (1) May 04, 2011
Enjoyed the piece. Too bad we can't travel in time back to the Eocene Epoch.
3 / 5 (2) May 04, 2011
did they have to kill the fsking hummingbird to use as a unit of measure? really, people? WTF!?
2.6 / 5 (5) May 04, 2011
Dead?!? I thought it was just well trained . . .

The humanity
2 / 5 (4) May 04, 2011
So as well as great weather and improved crop yields, we have to endure big ants that are as large as some ants today? Darn that anthropogenic global warming er global warming er global climate change.
not rated yet May 04, 2011
It doesnt even look like an ant, and if it was it looks like a queen ant of some sort. And agree with the poeple before me about the hummingbird...
1 / 5 (2) May 04, 2011
It doesnt even look like an ant, and if it was it looks like a queen ant of some sort. And agree with the poeple before me about the hummingbird...

The article explicitly states that it's a queen ant.

Agree about the hummingbird. It seems convenient that they would have a dead hummingbird just sitting around that is the perfect size for comparison. It would have been far less creepy if they just got someone to make a fist for the picture.

And...I hate ants. I feel religious right now, because praise God those ants are all dead. WTF would you do if you accidently stepped on their nest and a couple dozen of these suckers started swarming you.
not rated yet May 04, 2011
Awesome. Now I know what I can use when I can't find that pesky ruler. I had been using a dead chipmunk, but the hummingbird seems far better.

But seriously, they just happened to have a fresh killed hummingbird in their pocket? How about a coin? A pen? A business card? A cell phone? A USB plug? Seriously.
(no animals were harmed in posting this comment.)
5 / 5 (1) May 04, 2011
This is very exciting for several disciplines.

As for the dead hummingbird, the fossil was in a collection at a museum. It stands to reason that they'd also have preserved specimens on hand for study and display. I'm quite sure they didn't run outside and execute a hummer just for the photo shoot. Though I agree that a ruler would have been more useful for those of us who can wrap our heads around that sort of thing, I would imagine that most people would find the numbers dry and boring. So it makes sense that whoever took the photo tried to engage the widest possible audience by setting up the shot in this way. An ant as big as a bird, how cool is that!? Kids can understand that kind of a comparison.
5 / 5 (3) May 04, 2011
Is that a standard metric hummingbird?

It's an african swallow.
2 / 5 (4) May 04, 2011

You'd expect a larger insect to have a larger brain.

Imagine ants that are individually as smart as birds, but work collectively.

Thankfully, the died out.
not rated yet May 04, 2011
Larger bodies do not always mean larger brains.
1 / 5 (4) May 04, 2011
Larger bodies do not always mean larger brains.

Case in point: Tor Johnson in "Plan 9 from Outer Space"!
1 / 5 (5) May 04, 2011
A whole colony of ants even half this size, would have to be voracious - and scary!

I've seen velvet ants (actually ground dwelling wasps) that are about two centimeters long (sorry, I don't have a handy conversion chart for hummingbird units). They're really cool. When you annoy them (aka, poke 'em with a stick), they make really cute raspy-buzzing sounds. It's said their sting can take down a cow!

And, I've seen large stag beetles take down large moths that are about as big as a hummingbird (one hummingbird unit). Gives me the willies, just thinking about it.

Let's just be glad this ant is a fossil.

1 / 5 (2) May 05, 2011
Note that the ant has a wingspan almost as big as the humming bird...
not rated yet May 05, 2011
Is that a standard metric hummingbird?

That made me laugh :)

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