Lens of Time: Jaw Jumpers
Powerful jaws feature so prominently in science articles and documentaries that descriptors such as “bone-crunching” or “lightning-fast” hardly mean anything anymore. We’re all familiar by now with the animal kingdom’s impressive array of armaments, and jaws are some of the most widely-used tools for catching prey and defending oneself. Among the diverse cast of characters with menacing mouthparts, trap-jaw ants (Odontomachus sp.), although tiny, are awe-inspiring in their own right. With jaws that open a full 180 degrees and span a distance significantly wider than their heads, the ants can strike at the breathtaking speed of 225 kilometers (140 miles) per hour and with a force 300 times the insects’ own weight. In addition to the more conventional functions that jaws perform in other animals, trap-jaw ants employ theirs in a truly novel way: locomotion.
Whenever a quick escape is required, the insects press their heads into the ground, slam their jaws shut, and fling themselves a distance that’s equivalent to an average-sized person jumping 40 meters (130 feet) through the air. As biologist Sheila Patek describes it, “In regular, daily time, the ant is on the ground—and then you can’t find it.” Patek’s lab at Duke University specializes in studying some of the fastest motions in the animal kingdom, and trap-jaw ants are at the center of a ground-breaking partnership she forged with engineer Zeynep Temel from the Wood Microrobotics Lab at Harvard University. Temel, who uses origami-inspired metal folding techniques to create tiny robotic structures, is drawing on Patek’s deep knowledge of trap-jaw ant biology to develop new obstacle-jumping microrobots. Meanwhile, Patek has learned something from their partnership that she never expected—and it’s fundamentally changed biologists’ understanding of how the ants achieve their jaw-dropping acrobatics.