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Trap-Jaw Ants Box To Define Colony Rank, Video Shows

Feb 15, 2016 11:43 AM EST
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Antenna-boxing matches within ant colonies help dictate social rank for some trap-jaw ants. Florida natives (Odontomachus brunneus), for instance, can hit their opponent at a record-setting rate of 41.5 strikes per second, making it the world's fastest known boxer.

Trap-jaw ants are carnivores with incredibly strong mandibles that can lock back at 180 degrees. When sensory hairs lining their razor sharp mandibles are touched they can snap shut around prey and make for a painful bite, similar to a Venus flytrap.

In the latest study, researchers from the University of Illinois and North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences used high-speed cameras to film antenna-boxing matches in a total of four species of trap-jaw ants. They then counted how hastily each species pummeled its opponents, according to a news release.

"All social animals exhibit dominance behaviors of one kind or another," Andrew Suarez, University of Illinois entomology professor and animal biology department head, explained in the release. "In the case of social insects, we often focus on their chemical communication system, but in these ants the antennal boxing was too remarkable to ignore."

Generally, worker ants engage in these antennal boxing bouts. The fighting determines which ant has to stay in the nest and which gets to go out into the world to find food for the colony.

Compared to the Florida dwelling trap-jaw ants, Odontomachus rixosus, hailing from Cambodia, would hit their opponents at a rate of 19.5 strikes per second -- the slowest of the four species, according to the slow motion video.

"Trap-jaw ants are the fastest boxers ever recorded," co-author Adrian Smith of North Carolina State University added. "Describing how fast multiple species box each other helps us understand how this behavior evolves. For instance, we found that when one species uses boxing as a form of aggression, the behavior is indistinguishable from boxing as a social dominance interaction between colony members."

Next, researchers plan to study why social organisms like trap-jaw ants use antennal boxing and other aggressive behaviors to organize their societies.

Their study was recently published in the journal Insectes Sociaux.

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