The cheetah probably comes to mind first when you think of fast animals, but the records for fastest individual movements are far stranger. Mystrium camillae, a rare species of Dracula ant found in Southeast Asia and Australia, has now snapped up the crown for fastest animal movement on record, clicking its mandibles at blistering speeds that can stun prey.
Previously, the title was believed to belong to mantis shrimp, which can punch their powerful claws at over 80 km/h (50 mph), and trap-jaw ants, which can snap their mandibles closed at up to 230 km/h (143 mph). But the Dracula ant blows them both out of the water – it can snap its jaws at a painful 324 km/h (201 mph).
This power and speed is thanks to a different jaw structure to other ants. As the name suggests, trap-jaw ants reach their peak speeds by snapping their jaws closed from a wide open position, like a bear trap. Dracula ants, on the other hand, start closed. They press the tips of their mandibles together to build up internal stresses, which eventually release as one mandible slides over the other in a motion that looks like someone snapping their fingers.
"Even among ants that power-amplify their jaws, the Dracula ants are unique," says Andrew Suarez, lead researcher on the study. "Instead of using three different parts for the spring, latch and lever arm, all three are combined in the mandible. 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."
To say this movement is fast is an understatement – it's 5,000 times faster than the blink of an eye, and 1,000 times faster than we can snap our fingers. To capture that motion, the team filmed the ants at 480,000 frames per second.
They also imaged the insects with X-rays to investigate the anatomy that allowed them to pull off the feat, then ran computer simulations of different types of Dracula ants to test what roles the shape and structure played in that kind of power.
"Our main findings are that snap-jaws are the fastest of the spring-loaded ant mouthparts, and the fastest currently known animal movement," says Fred Larabee, corresponding author of the study. "By comparing the jaw shape of snapping ants with biting ants, we also learned that it only took small changes in shape for the jaws to evolve a new function: acting as a spring."
In future studies the team, which includes scientists from the University of Illinois, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and North Carolina State University, plans to investigate how the ants use this superpower of theirs in the wild.
The study was published in the journal Royal Society Open Science. Check out the snapping in action in the video below.
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