SCIENCE

Watch These Amazing Ants Use Their Jaws To Catapult Themselves Out Of Death Pits

05/15/2015 08:52 am ET

That's one small snap for an ant, one giant leap for antkind.

The trap-jaw ant, Odontomachus brunneus, is well-known for its ultra-fast mandible, which can snap shut at speeds of up to 143 miles per hour. Using its jaw, it can stun and maim its prey in an instant -- but that's not all that jaw can do...

The ants can also use their mandibles to catapult their bodies like tiny acrobats to escape from traps built in the sand by predatory antlions -- and according to a new study, this ability doubles their survival rate. Just check out the video above.

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For the study, Larabee collected 228 antlions and an equal number of trap-jaw ants. One-third of the trap-jaws had their mandibles glued shut, while the other two-thirds didn't.

mandible glued shut
Trap-jaw ant with its mandible glued shut.

The antlions were placed in plastic cups filled with sand, where they dug conical pits and buried themselves at the bottoms. Then the researchers dropped the trap-jaw ants into the "arenas" and waited to see whether the insects would escape from their predators.

“The [unglued] ants were able to jump out of the pits about 15 percent of the time in their encounters with antlions,” Fredrick Larabee, a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the study's lead author, said in a written statement. “But when we glued their mandibles shut before dropping them in the pits, they couldn’t jump at all. It cut their survival rate in half.”

According to the researchers, the ant's spring-loaded jaw serves as an example of evolutionary "co-option," where a feature that was selected for one function gets co-opted for another.

"In this case, a tool that is very good for capturing fast or dangerous prey also is good for another function, which is escape," Larabee said in the statement.

The research was published online on May 13 in the journal PLOS ONE.

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