It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s… a Saharan silver ant?
At least, that’s if you’re looking for the fastest ant in the entire world. Cataglyphis bombycina, or the Saharan silver ant, can reach speeds of 108 times its own body length each second during the hottest part of the day when sands can reach temperatures of 60°C (140°F).
It’s one of the world’s fastest insects, beaten only by a handful of critters like Australian tiger beetles and California coastal mites. But how does one determine how quickly a teeny insect is capable of moving? It’s not easy, but apparently somebody’s got to do it.
“The animals have always intrigued us, and although they are a bit difficult to come by – you have to visit sand dune habitats, and travel is currently difficult not only in Libya or Algeria but even in the southernmost stretches of Tunisia,” study author Sarah Pfeffer told IFLScience, adding that it was a multi-year endeavor.
Braving the heat of the desert Sun, the research team explored dunes until they found a silver ant nest. Using an aluminum channel attached to a mealworm feeder, the scientists were able to lure the ants out of their nests so that they could record their movements from above.
“The desert ants just have to shuttle back and forth between the nest and a feeding station. You lead them through a channel with a camera above to record the animals while passing through,” explained Pfeffer.
The team studied their footage to determine the speed and other characteristics of the insects' locomotion in order to compare it with ants that they had extracted from the field. These later ants were brought back to Germany so that the scientists could record their movements running at a cooler temperature – just 5.7 centimeters (2.2 inches) per second at 10°C (50°F).
So how are they capable of moving so quickly? To find out, the scientists compared the leg lengths of silver ants with their cousins (Cataglyphis fortis) and found that the limbs of silver ants are one-fifth shorter. To make up for this length difference, silver ants swing their legs and take around 47 strides per second, which is about a third faster than their leggier relatives. Instead of running, the coordinated ants gallop by picking all six feet up off of the ground simultaneously. They perfectly synchronize their legs in threes to form tripods as they walk, helping to prevent their feet from sinking into the sand.
“That is, they fly through the air with no feet on the ground from stride to stride,” said Pfeffer. “These features may be related to the sand dune habitat: brief and a rather synchronous impact of the three legs in a tripod on the sand may prevent the animal’s feet from sinking too deeply into the soft sand.”
Silver ants are a prime example of “highly adapted specialists” that are able to exploit extreme and hostile environments. Not only can they move at astonishing speeds, but they also have evolved a shiny coat of hairs on their body surface to reflect sunlight and protect the animals from overheating.