Predatory ants who have spring-loaded jaws that snap shut 700 times faster than you can blink! - Read

They are fearsome predators armed with long, spiky, widely-agape mandibles and their jaws move so fast that it's hard to register the movement and it's already over by the time you do.

By Zee Media Bureau | Last Updated: Aug 31, 2017, 17:52 PM IST
Predatory ants who have spring-loaded jaws that snap shut 700 times faster than you can blink! - Read
Image courtesy: Wikipedia

New Delhi: Ants – the tiny critters that roam around houselholds across the world – are known to be harmless. However, there is a small contingent of the ant species that crawl along the East Malaysian rainforest, but they are not to be underestimated.

While picnic ants are known to collect and eat their food in an organised manner, the Myrmoteras are predatory ants who are trap-jaw ants and their unbelievable prey-catching skills have been caught on camera by scientists.

Scientists are dumbfounded after what they witnessed – the Myrmoteras were seen snapping their jaws shut on unsuspecting prey at speeds of up to 80 kilometres per hour (50 mph), that is 700 times faster than a human can blink.

They are fearsome predators armed with long, spiky, widely-agape mandibles and their jaws move so fast that it's hard to register the movement and it's already over by the time you do.

To decipher the secret behind these lightening-fast jaws, a research team – made up of scientists from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, the University of Arizona, and the University of Illinois – got the ants into their lab to get a close look.

According to Gizmodo, the team collected a couple of colonies of two different species of Myrmoteras trap-jaw ants from the island of Borneo, and raised them in the laboratory. It was clear that the ants’ jaw strike was incredibly fast, but just how fast wasn’t known.

So, the trap-jaw ants were restrained and filmed with a high-speed camera. The ants stretched their jaws open a seemingly preposterous 280 degrees, and then, when puffed with a bit of air, snapped their toothy pincers closed with a robotic instantaneousness.

Filmed at 1,000 frames per second, the ants’ savage snap was still too quick for the movement to be tracked. It took the use of a 50,000 frame per second camera to finally slow the action down enough to see what was going on, showing that the mandibles snap shut in about half a millisecond, Gizmodo reported.

The secret, according to entomologist Frederick Larabee from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, is the way Myrmoteras hold their jaws open at a broad 280-degree angle – storing up elastic energy that gets suddenly released in a virtually invisible strike, as per a report in Science Alert.

"What's interesting is that the arrangement of the muscles and how the jaws are locked open are completely different from other trap-jaws ants that have been studied," says Larabee.

"It seems like it's a completely unique evolution of this system."

In the case of Myrmoteras, the mechanism is made possible by the ant's mandible joint. A lobe on the back of the head compresses, which enable the spring-loaded trap to be set, and the jaw is then loosed by a fast-contracting trigger muscle, Science Alert reported.

The findings are reported in the Journal of Experimental Biology.