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Trap-Jaw Ants Reveal New Acrobatic Skills

Dec 02, 2015 01:25 PM EST
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Trap-jaw ants are known for their incredibly strong mandibles that can snap shut around prey and make for a painful bite. While previous studies indicate the insects use their snapping jaws as an escape mechanism to propel themselves into the air, researchers recently revealed they can also accomplish the move with the help of their tiny legs.

"Jumping behavior in ants is incredibly rare," Magdalena Sorger, sole author of the recent study and a Ph.D. graduate from North Carolina State University, explained in a news release. "Out of 326 genera of ants, only three genera jump using their legs. Another three genera are known to jump using their jaws. But now we know that one species of jaw-jumping ant uses its legs as well. That's extremely interesting."

This behavior, observed in a species of trap-jaw ants known as Odontomachus rixosus, is what Sorger calls a "leg-jump." When observing the ants in Borneo, he confirmed the jumps were used primarily – if not exclusively – as an escape mechanism. When the ants snap their jaw on the group to hurl themselves in the air in either a forward or backward direction, they don't have much control of where they land and often end up on their backs. Using their legs, Odontomachus can jump forward more precisely and aim for a specific landing site. (Scroll to read more...)


"I can't rule out that these leg-jumps may be used for prey capture, but I did not see that in the field," Sorger said in the university's release, adding O. rixosusonly exhibited the leg jumping behavior when fleeing. "It's odd, evolutionarily, that this species would have developed two ways of jumping, driven by the jaws or the legs. I'm hoping to better characterize the physiological mechanism that powers the leg jumps and to determine what evolutionary advantage this species derives from the leg jumps. In theory, the advantage must be significant."

Trap-jaw ants are generally found throughout the tropics and sub-tropic regions of America, South Asia and Madagascar. The relatively large ants live in small colonies and prefer to feast on other insects or sweet substances. 

Sorger's findings were recently published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

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