Put aside the cheetah and peregrine falcon, there is a new candidate for the title of the fastest animal on Earth: the ant Dracula. Scientists have found that the tiny tropical insect can break its jaws at up to 90 meters per second (over 200 mph), the fastest animal movement ever recorded.
Ants use the explosive movement to attack, stun and kill prey, which is then fed to their larvae.
"They're circling underground, and if they find something like a centipede or a termite they can smash it with their jaws to kill or stun them," said Andrew Suarez, a professor of animal biology at the University of Illinois, who led the work. . "They may then prick you to incapacitate you further and then take you back to the nest."
The species, Mystrium camillaewas already known to have highly specialized attachments. However, scientists were able to determine the exact speed of the docking movement only with the advent of high-speed video technology in the last 10 years. Scientists also used x-ray imaging technology to observe the anatomy of three-dimensional ants to better understand how motion works.
Observations have shown that the Dracula ants activate their jaws by pressing the tips together, loading them with internal tension. Eventually, when one jaw slides through the other, each is released, in a movement similar to that of people clicking on their fingers.
The movement of the ant Dracula is different from that observed in trap-jaw ants, which were previously considered to be the world's fastest jaws. These ants leave from an open position and suddenly close like a mousetrap.
"Even among the ants that enlarge their jaws, the Dracula ants are unique," said Adrian Smith of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science, co-author of the study. "Instead of using three different parts for the spring, the latch and the lever arm, all three are combined in the jaw."
Dracula ants are found mainly in the tropics in Africa and Asia. They live in large underground colonies or within tree trunks, so they are rarely seen. Its name derives from its unusual eating habits, which involve a form of non-destructive cannibalism. Adult ants are unable to process solid foods; instead, they feed on the prey of their larvae and then make holes in the larvae and drink their blood. Scientists call the arrangement "social stomach."
In the future, the team plans to make more detailed observations of the ants at work in their natural environment. "Their biology, as they catch prey and defend their nests, still needs description," Smith said.
The results are published in the Royal Society Open Science journal.