Aug
30
2006

Shut your yap and go away!

Cocked and ready to go: A trap-jaw ant poised to strike. Photo courtesy Alex Wild at myrmecos.net
Cocked and ready to go: A trap-jaw ant poised to strike. Photo courtesy Alex Wild at myrmecos.net
The title for the world’s fastest jaws has a new champion. And I’m not talking about Robin Williams or any other fast-talking human. The title has been bestowed on the tiny trap-jaw ant, also known as Odontomachus bauri. The former title-holder was the mantis shrimp.

The ant’s mandibles are so fast, they’ve been clocked at 0.13 milliseconds, a mere 2300 times faster than the blink of an eye!

Trap-jaw ant with not-so-swift prey: Photo courtesy Alex Wild at myrmecos.net
Trap-jaw ant with not-so-swift prey: Photo courtesy Alex Wild at myrmecos.net
But that’s not all. The trap-jaw’s super-choppers are in fact so powerful, the very force of them snapping against the ground can propel the insect backwards, and out of danger.

Seeing them do that was "one of the more hilarious moments in our lab," said Sheila Patek, lead researcher and assistant professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley (watch it here ). The study was reported recently in an online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Patek and her team used high-speed video, recording at thousands of frames per second, to study and calculate the speed of the ant’s ultra-swift yap and hasty retreat. Normal video records at 30 frames per second.

Co-author of the study, Andrew Suarez, an ant expert who teaches animal behavior at the University of Illinois at Urban-Champaign, is fascinated that the trap-jaw has co-opted its feeding apparatus for other safety uses.

The 1/3-inch long ants can throw themselves more than 3 inches upward, and 15.6 inches to the side. In human terms, it would be like a five foot six inch person jumping up 44 feet in the air, and sideways 132 feet.

The trap-jaw’s secret lies in powerful muscles that hold the ant’s jaws open and ready to strike at less than a moment’s notice when a latch is triggered. Patek likens it to a crossbow where power is stored in the flexible bow and can be released instantly.

Trap-jaw ants are found in Central and South America. The ants used in the study came from Costa Rica.

FURTHER INFORMATION:

Biology News Net
National Geographic
More about ants
BBC News w/video

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