Ants: Quickest bite among animals

Josh Birnbaum The Daily Illini Josh Birnbaum

By Rob Warren

The trap-jaw ant, thanks to the determination of a University professor, now holds the record for fastest moving body part in the animal kingdom.

The research, which was funded by a Beckman Institute seed grant, was released Aug. 21 in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It found that the trap-jaw ant’s mandibles fly together at up to 64 meters per second, or about 140 mph.

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The ants defeated the mantis shrimp, whose rapid-fire claw was clocked at 23 meters per second.

Andrew Suarez, assistant professor in entomology and animal biology at the University, long suspected his ants were faster than the shrimp. After he acquired a colony from Costa Rica he had a few specimens mailed to Sheila Patek, assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley who filmed the ex-record-holding shrimp.

“Previous research, using older technology, had estimated the speed at 19 meters a second, but I knew that had to be wrong,” Suarez said. “Part of me wanted ants to be the fastest, out of pride for my specialty.”

The ant’s jaw goes beyond simply catching their quick prey, like crickets or spiders, Suarez said. Its purpose is both offensive and defensive. By placing their mandibles to the ground the ants can launch themselves into the air, and away from danger.

Weighing in at only 12-15 milligrams the ant’s mandible generates over 300 times more force than the ant’s bodyweight, Suarez said.

“If humans could jump with the same force it would be about a 40 foot leap straight up, or a 140 foot horizontal long jump,” Suarez said.

Another defensive use of the jaws is to propel intruders out of the nest, Suarez said. The ants can strike with their mandibles so that both they, and their opponent, fly in opposite directions.

The camera used at Berkeley to record the ants’ faster-than-the-eye movements can take up to 250,000 frames per second.

Previous camera technology required a great deal of light, so much that it would fry any living organism before it could move, Patek said. But, thanks to advances in the field, it is now possible to record specimens’ quick movements without killing them.

The film allowed researchers to look into the mechanics of the jaw.

“It’s basically like a mousetrap or crossbow,” Patek said. “Energy is cranked into the device over time, and then a latch is released and it comes out all at once. Pull the latch on the mandibles and they close very quickly.”

Future research will look into differences in speed for the many species of trap-jaw ants, the past study only focused on Odontomachus bauri, and also focus on the possibility of applying the underlying mechanics of the ants’ mandibles to engineering practices, Suarez said.

“The fact that the ants can store this incredible amount of energy in their jaws, without, so far as we’ve seen, wearing out the elasticity is fascinating from an engineering standpoint,” Suarez said.

Patek warned the ants may be on top for now, but another animal might come to steal their title.

“In the last couple of years, the advances in camera technology have lead to one record breaker after another,” Patek said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if something else will come along to unseat the ants.”