The predator with the fastest bite known in the animal kingdom isn’t the lion, the crocodile, or the great white shark. Rather, the world’s most impressive jaws belong to an ant native to Central and South America.
Biologists have found the trap-jaw ant, Odontomachus bauri, closes its mandibles in a mere 0.13 milliseconds, or 2,300 times faster than the blink of an eye. This translates to a speed of 35 to 64 meters per second, or 78 to 145 miles per hour.
More impressive than the closing speed is the force and acceleration. Researchers found that the jaws accelerate at 100,000 times the force of gravity, with each jaw generating forces exceeding 300 times the insect’s body weight. (The ants have typical body masses ranging from 12.1 to 14.9 milligrams, or about three hundredths of a pound.)
Scientists point out this acceleration is huge compared to the tiny mass of the jaws, and is among the highest in the world. Although falcons can dive as fast as 300 miles per hour, they must start from very high altitudes and work with gravity to reach those speeds. On the other hand, trap-jaw ants rely entirely on energy stored in their own bodies.
The mandibles of the trap-jaw ant are controlled by a pair of huge, contracting muscles in the head and are held by a pair of latches. The jaws are sprung when the latches are released. The researchers explain that using a latch system enables animals to obtain much faster speeds than through muscles alone. The analogy is throwing an arrow versus using a crossbow: the crossbow stores elastic energy, and a latch releases this energy almost instantaneously. As a result, the arrow shoots out very fast and goes much farther.
Although trap-jaw ants use their jaws to catch prey, another use is to escape from other predators. By snapping their jaws against the ground, the ants can launch themselves into the air, achieving heights up to 8.3 centimeters or horizontal distances up to 39.6 centimeters. For a human, that’s equivalent to jumping to a height of 44 feet or a horizontal distance of 132 feet. The path they take depends on the purpose of the mandible’s strike. When escaping quickly from a predator, the ant strikes its jaws against the ground to propel itself upward.
The ant can also use its jaws on a large attacker, simultaneously escaping from danger and injuring the intruder. When the ants jump to escape from harm, they are airborne from 0.22 to 0.27 seconds, often long enough to keep them away from a lizard’s tongue, which takes 0.11 to 0.28 seconds to strike. Also, multiple ants jumping at once may also serve to help them escape by confusing potential predators.