Few potential victims stand a chance against the formidable mandibles of a trap-jaw ant. In conflicts between predators and prey, speed is a decided advantage, and evolution has given these insects an edge with spring-loaded jaws that snap shut—often on their next meal—with astonishing speed.
In the Aug. 30 issue of the Journal of Experimental Biology, National Geographic Explorer Andrew Suarez and his team provide the first mechanical description of the jaws of a little known group of trap-jaw ants calledMyrmoteras. Using micro-CT scanners and high-speed cameras, they were able to unravel the unique anatomy that underpins these ants’ super-fast jaw movements.
Their research revealed that this group of ants snap their jaws unlike any other known ants, shining new light on the evolutionary history of these ants while also providing new perspective on why and how ants on the whole developed this ability multiple, distinct times in their evolutionary journey.
Myrmoteras ants live in the tropics of Southeast Asia, where they feed primarily on springtails—tiny arthropods that launch themselves into the air like fleas when they detect a threat. Until they encounter their prey, the ants hold their long, slender jaws at the ready, opened to a 280-degree angle. Latched into this position, the jaws store elastic energy. When they are released, they snap shut in a fraction of a second.
“Studying these ants gives us insight into solutions for real-world issues related to energy storage and high-speed systems,” said University of Illinois animal biology professor and National Geographic Explorer Andrew Suarez, who led the study, funded in part by a National Geographic Society grant with former graduate student Frederick Larabee, now a postdoctoral researcher at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.