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Dinosaur ant

In 1931 Australia, Amy Crocker discovered two worker ants from a new and strange species: Nothomyrmecia macrops. Despite extensive searches, more were not found for another forty-six years.

Dinosaur ant
April Nobile / from AntWeb.org / CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Amy Crocker was an Australian naturalist who, in the 1930s, had people gathering insect specimens from around western and southern Australia. Among those many samples were just two worker ants that were a little odd. Certain morphological characteristics of the head and body didn’t look much like other ants from today, but bore a closer resemblance to fossils of primitive ants from millions of years ago.

Crocker passed the two ants on to John Clark, an entomologist at the National Museum in Melbourne, and he identified them as a new species: Nothomyrmecia macrops. And not only were they a new species, they were a new genus – sufficiently different from all other modern ants that they stood alone. Nothomyrmecia was as a living fossil, a leftover branch from very early ants. As such, they were of extreme interest to entomologists worldwide. There was just one problem: no-one could find any more.

The area where the two samples were collected – supposedly near Israelite Bay in Western Australia – was scoured by researchers keen to learn more about Nothomyrmecia. But for more than forty years, no sign was found of this ancient ant. No-one knew how they bred, where they lived, what they did. It became a point of obsession, the Holy Grail for entomologists.

Finally, in 1977, another single Nothomyrmecia worker ant was discovered in Poochera. This tiny town in South Australia was quite far away from Israelite Bay, and subsequent finds have come from this area, which suggests that its original location may have been misreported or misremembered. Poochera, by the way, has become an entomological hotspot and tourist destination because of this discovery; there’s even a Nothomyrmecia statue in the middle of town.

Analysis since its dramatic rediscovery suggests that Nothomyrmecia separated from other ant species back in the Cretaceous. That’s where we get its common names, the dawn ant (from the dawn of time?) or the dinosaur ant. It’s still hard to find but we’re now up to at least 18 different locations in the wild, making this species an active and important line of entomological research.

Categories: Oceania Places Plants & animals Sciences

The Generalist

I live in Auckland, New Zealand, and am curious about most things.

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