Trap-Jaw Ants’ Bites Could Destroy Their Heads. Here’s How They Avoid That

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Credit: Bernard DUPONT

A trap on your head can seem like a brilliant idea when you’re the size of an eyelash and chasing after swift prey. However, any obstacles in their path could represent an issue. Luckily, the trap-jaw ant has a workaround to this dilemma, securely earning it a spot among the fastest snaps in the animal realm.

In order to understand how the mechanical jaws of death of the trap-jaw ant species Odontomachus brunneus handle the crazy pressures pulling them shut, a team of American researchers used mathematical modeling of the ant’s head structure.

The ant’s mandibles are spring-powered levers, biologists have discovered, and each one is held in place by a latch that is ready to release the instant prey tickles a literal hair-trigger mustache.

Tiny insects often use a mechanism called latch-mediated spring actuation (LaMSA). As biology decreases, elastic energy scales much more effectively than complicated biochemical motors, placing a spring in the stride of various sorts of insects. However, you may have too much of a good thing: the pressures even a little LaMSA can create risk tearing apart the materials keeping everything together.

The top speed recorded for O. brunneus was an astounding 196 kilometers per hour. Each of its mandibles can spin at a rate of 470,000 revolutions per minute, allowing it to sever victims from the air with the slightest contact. Surprisingly, the same jaws may be used for delicate manipulation, such as transporting young or other materials with ease.

The researchers wanted to gain a better picture of what was going on in that split second, so they filmed the ants at high speed. Each mandible was seen to maintain a constant 65-degree arc before slowing down at the conclusion of the swing. In the process of closing, the ant’s mandibles twisted the insect’s head out of shape, causing it to become around 3 percent shorter and 6 percent smaller.

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