Trap-jaw ants are small little critters with an amazing feature. They are carnivorous predators, so they feed on other small insects, but what makes them stand out is the way they do that. They possess a pair of specialized mandibles, that have the capacity of hitting each other at a speed of up to 130 mph. This is one of the fastest movements ever seen in the natural world. Furthermore, their jaw snapping plays a role both in procuring their pray and avoiding becoming somebody else’s pray.
These small insects can be found in Central and South America, Africa, Asia and Australia. They are pretty menacing for smaller insects than them, as they can use both their power-jaws and their terrible sting to hunt.
The trap-jaw ants became the object of a study conducted by University of Illinois’ Fredrick Larabee and Andrew Suarez. They wanted to better understand the defensive properties of the specialized mandibles. So what they did was take some trap-jaw ants and put them up against one of their natural predators, namely the antlion.
The antlion is itself a gruesome predators that lays traps in the sand for its pray. He digs pits in the sand and buries itself at the bottom of them and there he awaits innocent small insects to fall into his trap. Once fall into the pit, they can never get out, because the walls are abrupt and unstable.
To hasten the process, it even throws sand at its pray, so that it falls faster at the bottom of the pit, where it grabs it and buries it in the sand with him and eats it alive. This is why actual characters from Sci-Fi and horror films were based on this sadistic hunter.
So the trap-jaw ants had quite the opponent to escape from. The only chance that they stood was to snap their jaws as fast and as hard as possible. Because this strong snap produced a force far greater than something so small is normally capable of, the snap propelled them to bounce away from the antlions.
Out of the 228 trap-jaw ants that constituted the subjects of the study, one third of them got their jaws glued together, so as to test out this defense theory. The scientists wanted to see if they could employ other defense mechanisms other than their jaws.
The ants that were able to snap their mandibles managed to escape the ferocious antlions in a proportion of 15%. As for the unlucky ones that could not use their super power, their survival rate was of only 7,5%, because it turns out they have no other secret weapons.
And thus, the defense theory was proved, making their jaws a perfect example of evolution and adaptation. Since they can serve two causes at once, they constitute the visualization of evolutionary “co-option”, explain the scientists behind the study.
“In this case, a tool that is very good for capturing fast or dangerous prey also is good for another function, which is escape”, said Larabee.
The study was published in the scientific journal Plos One on May 13th and it is bound to make a good read if you are interested in the most remarkable tactics found out there, in the natural world. The trap-jaw ants are an extremely interesting species, with their space-shattering defense mechanism and their specialized preying methods.
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