Massive bird-sized ant fossil found in Princeton part of puzzle unlocking how ancient life spread

Ancient bird-sized ant fossil

A Princeton woman who discovered the fossil of a giant, ancient ant, the first of it kind found in Canada, has contributed to new questions in research.

Simon Fraser University scientists say a gigantic fossil found by Beverley Burlingame, is millions of years old, and is leading to questions about how ancient large insects travelled around the world.

The species, now extinct, is known by its Latin name Titanomyrma, and this is its first discovery in Canada. SFU paleontologists Bruce Archibald and Rolf Mathewes say the fossil shows a giant queen ant, with "the body mass of a wren and a wingspan of half a foot."

Archibald, Mathewes and Arvid Aase of Fossil Butte National Monument in Wyoming, have now published their research into the fossil.

"This ant and the new fossil from British Columbia are close in age to other Titanomyrma fossils that have been long known in Germany and England,” says Archibald, in a press release from SFU issued this week.

“This raises the questions of how these ancient insects traveled between continents to appear on both sides of the Atlantic at nearly the same time.”

Historical shifts in climate may have contributed temperatures being warm enough for Titanomyrma ant queens to travel to and survive in places like Canada, which had previously been thought impossible.

The fossil discovery proves they did indeed call Canada home.

"If it was a smaller species, was it adapted to this region of cooler climate by reduction in size and gigantic species were excluded as we predicted back in 2011?” says Archibald.

“Or were they huge, and our idea of the climatic tolerance of gigantic ants, and so how they crossed the Arctic, was wrong?”

The research is part of a bigger picture of how B.C.'s animals and plants formed when the climate was very different, 50 million years ago.

“Understanding how life dispersed among the northern continents in a very different climate 50 million years ago in part explains patterns of animal and plant distribution that we see today,” says Archibald.

Titanomyrma may also help us better understand how global warming could affect how the distribution of life may change. To prepare for the future, it helps to understand the past ... We’ll need to find more fossils. Do our ideas of Titanomyrma’s ecology, and so of this ancient dispersal of life, need revision? For now, it remains a mystery.”

The woman who found the fossil, Burlingame, is no stranger to the fossil game.

Burlingame is an avid collector who regularly brings fossils to the museum in Princeton, and sometimes, they prove particularly precious.

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