The Fastest Thing Ever... Ant or Termite?

Adventures Among Ants describes the jaws of the trapjaw ant Odontomachus as having the fastest recorded motion among living things. Hairs coming off the mandibles of this ant contact prey when the worker is just the right distance away to attack, and at that moment the jaws (previously held out at 180 degrees) snap forward like a bear trap. Here is one of these ants just before making the kill, approaching a grasshopper in Ecuador.

In February I was in Panama giving an evening talk for Smithsonian scientists by bonfire, projecting images on the wall of ant researcher Hubert Herz's home near the edge of the rainforest. Afterward I met Marc Seid, who told me a termite has broken this record. Termes panamaensis presses its jaws together until they violently snap past each other, much like people do to snap their fingers. Using this method, the soldiers give their enemies a lethal clubbing. Here's Marc's image of the termite soldier.

Certain ants use a similar finger-snapping technique to dispose of enemies, as I was first to describe. Mystrium workers press the tips of their club-like jaws together until they snap past each other. Maybe there's still a chance one of these ants will someday win back the record for highest velocity.

This essay expands upon the discussion on page 43 of AAA.

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