A recent study shows that trap-jaw ants use their spring-loaded jaws in both offensive and defensive ways. With a bite that can generate forces 300 times stronger than any force their bodies may pull off, these amazing ants rarely miss their prey.
But because they can also close their mouth at a speed of up to 134 miles per hour (or 60 mps), trap-jaw ants use their strong mandibles to escape death traps set by their arch enemies – the antlions.
Ultra fast-snapping jaws help trap-jaw ants virtually leap their way out from life-threatening situations. They can also help the small animals evade predators by either tossing their opponents away or jump around like popping popcorn from harm’s way.
A recent study analyzed the defensive strategies that trap-jaw ants employ when confronting antlions. Antlions are larger sized insects that lurk in sand and prey on any type of ants by setting up intelligent death traps. Whenever an unfortunate insect tumbles in their trap, the antilion quickly fetches its victim with its jaws and devours it.
But with a trap-jaw ant, things are not that simple. Two researchers wanted to learn whether those ants had a special method of dealing with an antlion when they meet one. So, they put several trap-jaw ants and antlions in an enclosed environment and watched what happened with high-speed cameras.
But first, scientists allowed antlions to build a death pit. Soon afterward, they put trap-jaw ants near the death traps. Half of the time, these ants were able to escape their predators and the death pit. About 35 percent of them ended up devoured, while 15 percent used their spring-loaded jaws to jump out of the trap when encountering an antlion.
To make it even harder to escape, researchers glued the jaws of some ants and watched them fight antlions. They soon learned that they had a twofold chance of ending up eaten than those that could use their jaws.
Researchers later wrote in their report that ants’ jaws indeed helped them in a defensive way, but they couldn’t tell whether they learned this behavior over the course of time or the defensive function was prior to the offensive one. Moreover, not all trap-jaw ants used their strong mandibles to fling themselves from a death pit. Some of them only use their jaws for offensive purposes when hunting.
As a follow-up, the two researchers plan to analyze more ant species and measure the speed and strength of their bite in various environments outside their laboratory.
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