Meet the fastest animal on the planet – the Dracula ant.
Found across Australia and South East Asia, it can snap its jaw at over 200 miles per hour – 5,000 times faster than the blink of a human eye, and 1,000 times faster than the snap of a finger.
The Dracula ant goes from zero to 200 mph in just 0.000015 seconds, so scientists had to use state of the art cameras to measure the amazing speeds involved.
To visualise the snaps, they had to film the ants at a mind-boggling 480,000 frames per second.
The amazing footage showed that the Dracula ant, or Mystrium camillae, can snap its mandibles at speeds of up to 90 metres per second – more than 200 mph, making it the fastest animal movement on record.
Study leader Professor Andrew Suarez, of the University of Illinois in the United States, said: “These ants are fascinating as their mandibles are very unusual.
“Even among ants that power-amplify their jaws, the Dracula ants are unique: instead of using three different parts for the spring, latch and lever arm, all three are combined in the mandible.”
Unlike trap-jaw ants, whose powerful jaws snap closed from an open position Dracula ants power up their mandibles by pressing the tips together, spring-loading them with internal stresses that release when one mandible slides across the other, similar to a human finger snap.
Prof Suarez said: “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.”
Study co-author Dr Fredrick Larabee, a postdoctoral researcher at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in the US, said: “Scientists have described many different spring-loading mechanisms in ants, but no one knew the relative speed of each of these mechanisms.
“We had to use incredibly fast cameras to see the whole movement.
“We also used X-ray imaging technology to be able to see their anatomy in three dimensions, to better understand how the movement works.”
The team also conducted computer simulations of the mandible snaps of different castes of Dracula ants to test how the shape and structural characteristics of the mandibles affected the power of their snap.
Dr Larabee said: “Our main findings are that snap-jaws are the fastest of the spring-loaded ant mouthparts, and the fastest currently known animal movement.
“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.”
The team’s future work includes examining how the ants use their mandibles in the field.
Co-author Dr Adrian Smith, of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in the US, added: “Their biology, how they capture prey and defend their nests, is still in need of description.”
The findings were published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.
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