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Fossils are essential to the comprehension of the early history of ants. The earliest known ants occur in ambers from France and Myanmar about 100 million years old, from the middle Cretaceous. Most belonged in an exclusively Cretaceous subfamily, the Sphecomyrminae, but a number of fossils cannot be assigned to any extant or extinct subfamily. All of these primitive ants apparently foraged among the moist litter of tropical forests, and had already evolved semi-sociality or even eusociality. Since then, ants have come to occupy virtually all major terrestrial habitats, and they are absent only from Antarctica, Greenland, and a few inhospitable or remote islands. They are now a conspicuous component of terrestrial ecosystems and have an expansive range of behaviors and interactions with other organisms. Their rise to dominance has been slow, however, and they appear to have been only moderately abundant and diverse for about the first 50 million years of their history. This is well reflected by their fossil record, which is abundant in the Cenozoic but remains very scant in the Cretaceous, with no more than 45 species in 23 genera (as of January, 2017) from six Albian to Campanian localities throughout Laurasia and a single Turonian one on Gondwana. In the recent years, however, excessively rich amber deposits from Myanmar have started to reveal an unexpected diversity within the stem ants Sphecomyrminae (Engel and Grimaldi, 2005; Barden and Grimaldi, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016; Perrichot, 2014; Perrichot et al., 2016).
More generally, there is a huge gap in the fossil record from the Southern Hemisphere, largely due to the fact that fewer studies have been conducted there relative to the Northern Hemisphere. The ant paleocommunities from Eocene Baltic and Miocene Dominican ambers are the best known thanks to the efforts of Mayr (1868), Wheeler (1915), and more recently Dlussky (1967 to 2015), Baroni Urbani and De Andrade (1980 to 2008).
Twelve of the 16 living subfamilies have been recorded as early as in the Eocene, 50 million years ago, and the Formicinae and Dolichoderinae (plus possibly the Aneuretinae and Ectatomminae) already existed by the Late Cretaceous, 80 million years ago. But only three subfamilies became extinct through time: the Cretaceous Brownimeciinae and Sphecomyrminae, and the Eocene Formiciinae. Thus, there is no evidence that ants experienced a greater diversity in the past than now.
Note. Some primitive fossils found as compressions in Cretaceous sediments, and assigned to the extinct Armaniidae, have a controversial status. It is still not possible to definitively determine whether they are true ants, i.e. Armaniinae within the stem group Formicidae, or a paraphyletic crown group of the formicoids. They are thus excluded from the inventory of fossil ants presented in AntWeb.
Fossil Ant Curator, University of Rennes, France