"Having a latch system is critical in obtaining the explosive speeds," said Patek. "In general, muscles aren't good at generating fast movements. If a person were to throw an arrow, it wouldn't get very far. But by using a crossbow, elastic energy is stored in the bow, and a latch releases the stored energy almost instantaneously. As a result, the arrow shoots out very fast and goes much farther. That's exactly what really fast organisms are doing."
It's no wonder, then, that O. bauri ants can launch themselves into the air with a mere snap of their jaws, achieving heights up to 8.3 centimeters and horizontal distances up to 39.6 centimeters. That roughly translates, for a 5-foot-6-inch tall human, into a height of 44 feet and a horizontal distance of 132 feet, an aerial trajectory likely to be the envy of circus acrobats and Olympic athletes.
The jump's trajectory depends on the purpose of the mandible's strike. When the ant, either alone or in a group, approaches and strikes a large intruder with its jaws, it is simultaneously catapulted away from the trespasser, perhaps leaving behind a crippled victim in the process. In these so-called "bouncer defense" maneuvers, the trap-jaw ants clear, on average, 22.3 centimeters horizontally, but only 0.8 to 5.7 centimeters vertically.
In comparison, when the ant needs to escape quickly from an intruder, it strikes its jaws against the ground to fling itself into the air. In these "escape jumps," the ant is jettisoned to heights of 6.1 to 8.3 centimeters, but just 3.1 centimeters horizontally.
Escape jumps also yield a faster initial spin rate, 63 revolutions per second, compared to the relatively slow spin rate of 36 revolutions per second for bouncer defense jumps.
Contact: Sarah Yang
University of California - Berkeley