Which animal has the fastest snapping jaw? If you’re guessing a shark or perhaps an alligator, you’ll have to think smaller.
The trap-jaw ant (Odontomachus bauri), which lives in Central and South America, moves its mandibles (mouth parts) at 115 to 207 feet (35 to 63 meters) per second.
Another way to think about this is that the ant’s jaws close at 78 to 145 miles per hour (125 to 233 kilometers per hour). That’s 2,300 times faster than the blink of an eye.
Scientists were able to measure the amazing jaw speed using high-speed video techniques.
Sheila Patek, assistant professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, says the key is that the jaws have a pair of latches: “Having a latch system is critical in obtaining explosive speeds.”
Consider a bow and arrow. If you try to throw an arrow with your arm, it won’t go very far. If you use a bow, elastic energy stored in the bow is released almost instantly when you release the arrow with your finger or a latch.
The combination of the springy bow and latch mechanism is what makes the arrow zoom through the air. “That’s exactly what really fast organisms are doing,” says Patek.
Maybe even more amazing than how fast these ants grab food or even enemies is how they use this same energy to move. As the ant closes its jaws, it uses them to push off the ground—all faster than the eye can see without slow motion video. A snap of the jaw can launch an ant up to 3.3 inches (8.3 centimeters) in the air. That’s like someone’s who’s five-foot-six (1.7 meters) leaping 44 feet (13 meters)!
Trap-jaw ants cover ground the same way. Not only can they quickly evade predators (enemies who want to eat them), but often a group of ants will start jumping all at once.
Imagine a lot of popcorn popping. It would be hard to grab just one. Researchers think this “popcorn” effect might help the ants escape by confusing their enemies.
People have suspected the ants used their jaws to jump for over a century, but could only prove it with today’s modern video equipment.