Time to step down from the throne, mantis shrimp and snap-jaw ants, there is a faster-moving creature on Earth – one so powerful it sends its prey pinwheeling away.
This pint-sized power prodigy is none other than a humble species of ant, dubbed “Dracula ant” (Mystrium camillae) after the eponymous vampire. This wee creature can snap its mandibles faster than the blink of an eye – 5,000 times faster to be specific. That equates to 90 meters per second (200 miles per hour), and they don’t even open their jaws to do it. Good thing it's so small.
"These ants are fascinating as their mandibles are very unusual,” said Andrew Suarez, animal biology and entomology professor at the University of Illinois, in a statement. "Even among ants that power-amplify their jaws, the Dracula ants are unique: Instead of using three different parts for the spring, latch and lever arm, all three are combined in the mandible.”
Dracula ants eclipse the previous record holders by three times as much speed. Instead of smacking their jaws closed like trap-jaw ants, they press the tips of their mandibles together, spring-loading them with internal stresses and building power. This all releases into a snap-fire movement as one mandible slides across the other, sort of like a human finger snap.
"The ants use this motion to smack other arthropods, likely stunning them, smashing them against a tunnel wall or pushing them away. The prey is then transported back to the nest, where it is fed to the ants' larvae," Suarez said.
To capture this zoological anomaly for the record books, the researchers had to film the ants at 480,000 frames per second. They then used finite-element analysis, which is an engineering tool used to simulate how a structure will respond to a force that’s applied to it. Computer simulations were also used to test how the shape and structure of the mandibles influence the ants’ mighty power. The findings are published in Royal Society Open Science.
By comparing these ants to closely related non-snapping ants, the team found that the jaws of M. camillae bend more than biting jaws (which have to resist deformation). This helps put the behavior in an evolutionary context and provide a glimpse into how the morphology evolved.
In all, the team have bequeathed it the title of fastest self-powered movement in the animal kingdom. Still, little is known about this swift creature and it remains a relatively cryptic species to science. The team hope to change that and study how the ants use their mandibles in a natural environment.
"These results extend our understanding of animal speed and demonstrate how small changes in morphology can result in dramatic differences in performance."